When I was about 4, my parents were going through a divorce and it was a rough time for me in many ways. But there was one thing in particular that helped me cope with this stressful transition: reading.
Then, as now, I turned to the world of books, both as a coping mechanism and an escape for those times when I was feeling the most anxious, depressed or lonely.
It turns out that reading fiction has significant mental health benefits. David Lewis, a British researcher, found that just six minutes of pleasure reading can reduce stress by 60%. Another study found that 30 minutes of reading has the same mental and emotional health benefits as 30 minutes of yoga.
Additionally, reading is a valuable emotional teacher in many ways. It reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering and that there is hope to be found even in the darkest circumstances. In that way, reading helps us to navigate the rocky transitions from childhood to being a teenager to adulthood.
And there’s plenty of evidence that pleasure reading helps kids in school, too.
Pleasure reading has three key benefits for teens. In particular, it enhances academic performance, boosts social engagement and fosters healthy emotional development, especially in the areas of empathy and compassion.
Therapists sometimes prescribe bibliotherapy — fiction reading for pleasure — to patients dealing with chronic anxiety and depression. It’s even been used to great effect for some war veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional trauma.
Reading also improves our language skills, which in turn gives us the ability to express ourselves in ways that others can understand. Improved language skills unlock the door to a lifetime of understanding and being understood.
There’s some convincing research that reading has physical health benefits, too. It can help to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s, it lowers our blood pressure and heart rate and it helps us sleep better.
On average, people who prioritize pleasure reading tend to live two years longer than their counterparts who don’t read regularly, according to a 2016 study by Yale University.
This quote is attributed to 19th-century statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who advocated for the benefits of literacy as a means to fight back against the injustices of slavery: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Those words echo in my mind every time I pick up a book. In so many ways, reading truly is the gateway to personal freedom.
Mackenzie Junto is in 11th grade at Garden Spot High School.