As someone who has suffered from anxiety in varying degrees for the past 4 years, I’ve been reflecting on the part books have played in changing my mental state – and it’s brought me to some surprising realisations.
For as long as I can remember, reading has always been a great comfort to me. I think that’s probably true for many people – curling up under the duvet with a good book is one of life’s great pleasures, after all! But books have given me more solace than I would have ever have given them credit for before I started suffering with anxiety. They’ve always enabled me to relax, unwind and just generally indulge in that little bit of escapism that all of us crave at some point.
When I first started suffering with anxiety, I didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t really know even now what I thought was happening, to be honest, all I know is it came to a bit of a head after my then-fiancé (now my husband) and I took a holiday in Crete. My first day back at work after that holiday didn’t go badly, it was a pretty standard day – but when I got home I went into meltdown.
It got worse before it got better – although facing the problem head on enabled me to ultimately make real progress with improving my mental health, at first the realisation was a bit of a rollercoaster. The initial relief that a doctor understood what was happening, that I wasn’t just imagining that something was wrong. Followed by shame that someone with as good a life as me could ever have a mental illness (“what did I have to be anxious about?”). The mood swings, the near-constant crying, the stomach problems which meant I ended up in a vicious cycle of illness – stress followed by stomach issues, stomach issues in turn causing me stress – all meant that my life started to shrink in on itself a bit. I managed to keep going to work, but anything else took real emotional and physical effort. As anyone suffering with anxiety knows, it really takes it out of you – I was wiped out and struggled to remember things one day to the next.
In that respect, reading really helped keep me sane. I could read alone – no group participation required. No worrying about what people were thinking, I didn’t even have to leave the house. If I did have to leave the house, taking a book with me made me feel calmer – I could at least try and ignore everyone on public transport (getting on a bus, something that I’ve been doing my whole life, was really hard at this point). Audiobooks were something I’d been getting into around this time too, and looking back this was probably tied into my coping strategy, although I didn’t realise this at the time.
I really started to turn a corner with my mental health towards the end of 2015. My husband and I got married in April, and I’m sure that was probably a big help – with the wedding out of the way, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I loved my wedding day, but don’t underestimate how much a day like that can take it out of an introvert, especially one with anxiety! I’d been going to cognitive behavioural therapy and that really helped me to get out of the cycle of catastrophic thinking I’d got into. I occasionally have relapses into anxiety (I’m wondering if I’ll ever truly shake it off), particularly during stressful periods, but I know that I’ve escaped it before, and knowing that I can do that again helps me keep things in perspective.
Nowadays though, the relationship between my reading and my anxiety is so much more complicated. I’ve no clue why this is (any psychologists reading this are welcome to hazard a guess, I’d be intrigued!). All I know is that it’s a lot harder for me to concentrate on a book when I’m in “anxiety mode” now than it was back then. I am the world’s slowest reader anyway, but I often find myself going at a snail’s pace when I’m in one of those periods. That said, at the moment I’m powering through audiobooks! Purchasing my prized noise-cancelling headphones has been a Godsend – I can listen to them on the go much more easily now, which has no doubt influenced this.
I find short stories, essays and more contemporary fiction help me get my reading mojo back at these times. I know that sounds like an odd collection, and I don’t know why, but if it works, it works! Reading is really important to me, I feel miserable if I don’t do it every day, so I’m not going to question it, I’m just glad something works!
I’m sure there are times when I’ve used reading as a crutch to get me through difficult times, when I’ve not felt like staring down my emotions. Ultimately, that doesn’t work for me – I know I need to acknowledge the problem to move forward. But overall, I think reading has helped more than it has hindered, and for that I am really grateful.