The word self-care gets tossed around a lot these days, and it can get a little … tiring. Between the deep breathing, bubble baths and downward facing dogs, sometimes self-care leaves us more in our heads than out of them. While self-reflection has its time and place, the current state of the world has left many of us (myself included) in desperate need of a mental escape.
Enter binge reading, a topic first introduced to me in a viral New York Times article. The concept is a simple one: In the same way you can hunker down with a Netflix show until it sends that embarrassing notification asking if you’re still watching, you can curl up and do the exact same thing with a good book.
While I’m all for a good TV binge every now and then, there’s no question that applying this practice to reading is better for our brains, and might just be peak 2020 self-care.
The Mental Health Benefits of Reading
Aside from the fact that a good fiction novel was the original form of escapism long before TV and movies were a thing, the act of reading comes with a number of mental and emotional health benefits, like increased empathy and creativity.
Interestingly, it can also help with issues many of us are facing right now, like insomnia and emotional distress. “Experts recommend a bedtime routine that helps us transition from wakefulness to sleep, avoiding blue light from screens that suppresses melatonin,” says Jennifer Carter, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Reading a print book or listening to an audiobook before bed can be a wonderful part of that routine. Anxiety fades away when we immerse ourselves in a story that transcends our daily worries.”
And while it’s always a good idea to work through your emotions, Carter says that in times of emotional distress distraction can be a great tool, too. “Distraction is a key skill for getting through times of intense sadness, fear, insecurity, or anger,” she explains. “Reading fiction can be a powerful distraction from painful feelings.”
As Alicia Pender of Upstate Reads puts it, the reason binge reading is such an excellent form of self-care is because it literally takes us out of our environment. If you’ve ever been really into a good book and then looked up and almost forgotten where you were, you’ve probably already experienced the delightful flow state that is binge reading.
“Plus, unlike real life where you can’t necessarily choose what kind of day to have, or how to feel, or who to interact with, you can choose what book to escape in, what feeling you want to evoke, which characters you want to spend your time with,” Pender points out. “I often binge read books I’ve read before, which to me feels like revisiting old friends or reliving a journey that is stress-free because I already know how it ends.”
What if I can’t concentrate?
While the concept of binge reading is a great one, for a lot of people it’s easier said than done — especially if you’re having a hard time concentrating right now. If getting into a book is hard for you, it may be as simple as the fact that you’re reading the wrong book.
“I devour romantic suspense novels, but I have trouble finishing paranormal fiction or self-help books,” says Carter. “There are countless fictional genres to explore, like medical thrillers, historical fantasy, space opera, or cozy mysteries.”
You also may just be consuming your books in a format that doesn’t quite work for you. “Some readers prefer e-books or audiobooks to traditional print books,” Carter says.
If that still isn’t working for you, try reading a few books at once. “Binge-reading doesn’t have to mean finishing every book you start. I spend hours reading every day and that’s because I’m always reading six books at once,” says Pender. “I will read non-fiction with breakfast, a novel with lunch, a graphic novel before bed. I have a book I keep in my car that I read whenever I show up early somewhere. On those rare and lovely days where I can snuggle up on my couch and do nothing but read, I pick a stack of books and jump back and forth between them.”
Pender’s last — and perhaps most difficult — piece of advice? Put your phone down. “I love reading, but I still spend a lot of time scrolling through my twitter feed, wishing I was reading a book instead.”
We’ve all been there. Here’s to less scrolling and more binge reading.
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