It’s 3am and I’m wide-awake. It’s been hours since I put my book down and turned off the light, but I can’t stop thinking about the fictional characters that have been occupying my head.
I know that it’s just a story – but I am invested. Something awful is unfolding and I can’t put it out of my mind. I spend the night tossing and turning and wake up exhausted.
While reading is often a good way to unwind, it’s not always good for us as psychological therapist Annie Gurton explains.
“When we are reading we enter into another world, and, strange as it may seem, our brains are actually unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality.
“When we read about love and passion, the same parts of our brains are activated as when we experience love and passion ourselves. The same for fear and danger, courage and excitement,” she says.
According to Gurton, this means that someone who is prone to anxiety should avoid reading horror stories.
“Using our imagination [through reading] can be catastrophic when it is being misused, such as to think about plane crashes or other disasters. In fact, the inappropriate use of our imagination is behind many mental disorders, particularly anxiety,” says Gurton.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is an author and mental health advocate. She is also a prolific reader. I asked her whether fiction can impact on a person’s mental health.
“It depends on the nature of the fiction, and on the nature of the mental health,” she says.
“Fiction can take a person out of their immediate concern, that much is definitely true. It can be a wonderful distraction, an enrichment, a diversion from the everyday. All of this bodes well for improved mental health.”
However, Spargo-Ryan also notes that sometimes fiction can be detrimental to a person’s mental health. “[Fiction] can explore issues in very immersive ways that may be problematic for readers,” she says.
Despite this, Spargo-Ryan says that although some fiction can be challenging for readers, on the whole reading is still a positive experience.
“I write stories that include lots of the less happy facets of life, and a big part of why I do that is to teach empathy and offer insight. Fiction and other fictionalised writing forms like poetry, plays, films, etc. have always been a way to communicate experiences outside of the reader's immediate understanding.
“The beauty of reading is choice - if a reader wants to expand their understanding, choosing to include stories with sad or stressful (but important) subject matter can be a profoundly eye-opening experience,” she explains.
So what should you do if you find that your reading material is stressing you out? Spargo-Ryan says that she has skipped over sections of books because they were having a negative impact on her mental health.
“Sometimes that was because the mental illness in the book was so well-rendered, but other times it was just because it was so absorbing and transporting that it broke my consciousness a bit,” she explains.
Likewise, Gurton says that the key is to read appropriately and not reading indiscriminately.
“Both fiction and non-fiction can give you ideas about how your life could be better, and ways in which you can live better and be the best version of yourself,” she says.
“Provided you use discretion over the subject matter and don’t read too much that is negative or toxic, reading is definitely good for you.”