What Helps Stress, Your Mood and Brain Health? Books

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
A photo of a person reading a book
© Katrin Ray Shumakov / Stocksy United

The sun’s out and the water is calling your name. You start to pack your favorite beach bag: Towels? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Snacks? Absolutely. What about that book you’ve been meaning to read for the last three months — should you take it with you? Without a doubt, yes. 

Aside from the entertainment (and Instagram aesthetics) of having a beach read, reading provides greater health benefits than scrolling through social media or an endless binge of funny videos. Here’s what to remember the next time you’re deciding whether to bring along a book or just stick with your phone.  

The health benefits of reading 

Many people read for a much-needed escape, but that’s just where the health benefits of reading begin. 

Reading improves brain function 

When you read, many different brain regions, including the temporal and frontal lobes, are involved. These parts of the brain help with speech, memory and language comprehension. The more you read, the stronger those networks become, which helps improve brain and memory function. Think of it as a little workout for your brain. 

“Studies have found a connection between reading books and brain health. In particular, regular reading seems to be a protective factor against cognitive decline and dementia,” says Dr. Ariel Starr, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Washington. “Like learning a new language or solving puzzles, reading is a cognitively stimulating activity.”

Reading reduces stress levels 

“Reading encourages you to disconnect from the world and become immersed in the world on the page, whether that is an imaginative world in a fictional novel or a different time or place in a nonfiction book,” says Starr. 

Giving your brain permission to disconnect from your real-life experiences helps to ease muscle tension and causes your blood pressure and heart rate to decrease, Starr says. She notes that reading before bed can help you relax so that you can fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly. And if the other nighttime alternative is doomscrolling on your phone until you fall asleep, you might find that restricting your phone time before bed and opting to read instead results in better overall sleep quality. 

Reading improves your mood 

Yes, even during the most heart-wrenching fantasy novel, the act of reading does wonders to pull you out of a funk.  

“Reading can help improve your mood by shifting your focus away from your own stressors and disrupting negative thought patterns,” says Starr. “Reading can also have a calming effect, similar to yoga or other meditative activities.” 

Because reading can help decrease your heart rate and ease muscle tension, how your body feels after a few chapters of your latest library read could be comparable to other forms of relaxation. 

Reading makes you more empathic 

Sure, you don’t need to be a bookworm to understand empathy, but exploring the lives of others — both real and fictionalized — is a great way to build that skill. 

“Reading increases empathy by encouraging you to understand the feelings and motivation of characters who are different from yourself,” says Starr. “These benefits are particularly important in childhood when social skills are still developing, but readers of all ages can reap the benefits.” 

That means if you have little ones, reading them a bedtime story not only helps them grow these crucial social skills (and make them sleepy), but these stories can also help you, too. 

Yes, audiobooks count as reading 

Don’t let anyone tell you that an audiobook is not a real book. Starr says that listening to audiobooks has similar positive benefits to reading physical or eBooks; both story mediums require concentration, analysis and interpretation.

“Research shows that the same brain areas are engaged when both reading and listening to stories,” she says. 

Plan your next library trip 

Especially during times of increased stress, you can relax knowing that sinking into a good book is not just a fun escape — it’s also good for your brain and your body. 

“Reading is a great way to learn about places, people, ideas and things you might not otherwise be able to experience,” says Starr. “And thanks to local libraries, it’s an activity that you can do for free.” 

So, the next time you want to spend a few extra hours lounging on the beach, or just curled up on the couch, you have a great excuse: You’re taking care of your health.