Over the past year or two, I've noticed something about my mood and ability to focus: when I scroll through social media, like Instagram, I find things that catch my interest. Some are funny, some are meaningful, some give me pause.
Yet once I log off, I feel restless. A little empty inside. Even if what I've looked at was nourishing, I don't feel nourished. Actually, I feel some anxiety.
There's plenty of scientific evidence to back up this feeling. Social media and bite-sized content tend to keep your brain in more of an activated, alpha state. The constant switching of attention (even just from one post to the next) forces you to scatter your attention, which keeps you in an elevated brain state (which is where anxiety lives).
By contrast, I've noticed that when I choose to read my book, I feel different. After a few minutes, my shoulders start to relax. I'm breathe a little more deeply. I feel more settled into my body, settled into the space.
And when I complete a reading session, I feel ... better. I don't feel drained; I feel nourished. I didn't have to manage my texts and DMs and emails and GroupMe notifications all at the same time. All I had to do was follow the characters and relish in their banter. I got to follow a single storyline.
New research now quantifies that feeling of relaxation and nourishment. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Sussex now shows that a mere six minutes of reading can reduce a person's stress level by 68 percent.
Imagine cutting your stress or anxiety in half in just six minutes.
What's even more striking is that this one activity (reading) beat out several others you might think would have won:
- Listening to music (61 percent reduction in stress/anxiety)
- Drinking tea/coffee (54 percent reduction in stress/anxiety)
- Taking a walk (42 percent reduction in stress/anxiety)
In other words, if you want to truly relax body and mind, reading a book works better and faster than almost anything else. Or in the words of head researcher and neuroscientist Dr. Lewis, "Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation."
The study had participants engage in a range of tests and exercises to evaluate their stress levels and heart rate. Participants were then asked to do a variety of relaxation activities, and reevaluated.
Subjects had only to read for six minutes before their heart rates began to slow, and their muscle tension eased. In fact, reading consistently had participants relax to levels beyond those they came in with.
"This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism," said Dr. Lewis. "It really doesn't matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author's imagination."
Curling up with a good book has long been known as a relaxing activity, but you may not have realized the extent to which it is relaxing. Why does it work so well? Some psychologists believe it's because your mind has to concentrate on what you're reading, which leaves the body free to relax. You simply focusing on relaxing often doesn't work; you need another point of focus to truly let go. Interesting characters and a good story gives you just that.
You may have tried acupuncture, NLP, meditation, deep breathing exercises, walking, and more to reduce stress and lower anxiety.
Turns out the most effective tool for relaxation might've been sitting on your bookshelf the whole time.