As a wife, mother and full-time working professional in behavioral health, getting lost in a great book is one of my favorite ways to unwind after a long day. While fiction is often my preferred genre for before-bed reading, I also look to non-fiction to further my development, learn more about a public figure or make me laugh.
A recent experience reading one of my favorite authors, Jenny Lawson, has provided an opportunity to bring a personal joy (reading) and professional passion (mental health) together. In the book Broken (in the best possible way), Lawson speaks honestly about her own mental health struggles, raising awareness and bringing empathy and solidarity to others experiencing their own struggles. I became even more excited about this combination when my organization, Burrell Behavioral Health, became a supporter of Lawson speaking at the upcoming Unbound Book Festival, with the hopes of sharing the experience of open, honest conversations about mental health with even more people.
Reading is beneficial for our mental health, which in turn supports our physical well-being. When we read about others with shared or similar experiences, it can help us to feel less isolated. Reading can also help us to learn about and empathize with those whose life experiences may be very different from our own, building empathy and greater social awareness. While leaning into an activity that brings me joy and allows me to decompress from my day is reason enough for me to continue doing it, research has also shown that regular reading reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and can fight depressive symptoms.
While reading is a seemingly solitary hobby, it can also elevate our social health. Connecting with characters and humans through reading can transcend the actual reading experience, creating live (or virtual) opportunities for human connection via book clubs, forums or festivals. Every year, I set a personal reading challenge for myself as a way to hold myself accountable. Discussion with a friend about this reading challenge led to a connection with a group of inspiring women. In the group, we share our most recent reads along with our thoughts and opinions. Reading has connected me not only to many fabulous books, but fabulous people as well.
Reading also allows a sometimes rare opportunity to completely disconnect from a screen or device, which can benefit our brains. Reading provides a completely different experience for our brains than receiving images through a TV show or movie – forcing us instead to invent them ourselves. Even on days when I may be too tired to read for more than a few chapters or minutes, reading to disconnect and clear my thoughts before sleep is one of my favorite ways to end the day.
Here’s to better brain health through reading!
Megan Steen is the regional vice president for Burrell Behavioral Health in central Missouri and a licensed clinical social worker.