Newsflash: Reading is Relaxing!

Gbot sets out breakfast and an audience, about a year ago. Would I look this stress-free if I read to myself over breakfast?

Overheard at the coffeeshop on Saturday:

“So, have you read Harry Potter?”

“Yeah.”

“What book are you on?”

The conversation wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that the two conversationalists’ chins barely skimmed the table top as they sipped their hot chocolate. They were four years old–Mbot and his friend Mbug. She’s a bright kid whose mom had told me she wouldn’t sit still to listen to picture books. I loaned her the first Harry Potter. They were on chapter five; she was riveted.

The same day, the news over at the Huffington Post was that reading a good book lowers stress levels. HuffPo editors and bloggers chimed in on their reasons how and why in Turn the Page on Stress. 

The timing was interesting, as a few weeks ago, I picked up a book I’d had on a side table for a month. I was too tired to read, and too tired to sleep. I lay down on the sofa, listening for a bot to call me back for one more hug, and opened the book. I knew that one reason I felt so weary was that I hadn’t gotten–or given myself–a chance to read more than half a New Yorker article in over a month–probably two.

The book wasn’t fiction: recommended by a friend, it was Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen’s Superparenting for ADD. The title might reveal one of the reasons I’m so tired, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A while back, Mbot was diagnosed with “very low level” Attention Deficit Disorder–a borderline case, a case that’s almost not a case, but I feel it’s something I needed to learn to manage more effectively than I was managing it. I dislike the label because so much ignorance surrounds it and it carries so many negative connotations. In learning more about ADD, I’m learning to change my own behavior, which helps him with his; the result is a happier bot and a happier household. Hallowell’s positive approach to the issue is delightful and his storytelling is instructive and amusing.

An hour after I started reading, I was thirty-eight pages in and feeling a much-missed feeling of lightness and optimism. I recognized I felt better partly because of the contents of the book, but partly due to the simple act of leaving my own drama to witness those of others. I was reminded, through narrative, that obstacles can be overcome for a happy conclusion, and that recognizing the truth and dealing with it is a source of power–and having control over a situation is a way to lower stress levels.

I am of course reminded often of the de-stressing powers of reading, but it is a constant source of amazement to me how thoroughly we can ignore things we know, or forget them. I am reminded of reading’s calming effect by Mbot himself. Every night at bedtime, and usually during the day, I read aloud, in addition to a few picture books, a chapter (usually more) of Harry Potter (we’re on book two), a chapter of Little House on the Prairie (we’re on book two), and a chapter of The Hardy Boys. (We jump around according to whatever’s on the library shelf). Mbot, who has shown little patience with learning the letters of the alphabet, and who is often pushing the boundaries of his environment, is completely absorbed by a long narrative. He often asks the meaning of unfamiliar words, but I am not sure how much he understands of the story arc. Yet he does understand there are characters to be concerned about, and that there is a story arc. He would sit listening until my voice gave out or I collapsed face down, drooling on the Heir of Slytherin.

On Saturday, in addition to coming across HuffPo’s article, I happened to read Flannery O’Connor‘s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in which she writes,

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

When I came across O’Connor’s observation, I realized I had put off reading (to myself) for that month or those months not simply because I was too tired or didn’t have time–but because I lacked the courage to take a long look at things. I was resisting entering a drama–anyone else’s drama–because I didn’t have enough emotional energy for their’s, too: I am a slow reader, and invest a lot in whatever I’m reading. But in those thirty-eight pages of Hallowell’s book, I was introduced to nearly a dozen people’s dramas, and instead of feeling oppressed by them, I felt uplifted. Since that night, I’ve been making time to read (to myself!) every day, even if it is just for a few minutes in the car before heading inside. In fact, I’m back to my old habit of reading several books at once–like I said, if only a few pages at a time.

And so stress-relief is even closer than the new gym with two hours of child-care per day. It’s as close at hand as my bookshelves. Now all I need to do is remember that.

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7 thoughts on “Newsflash: Reading is Relaxing!

  1. I used to be an avid book reader before I became a mom. Then my energy level dropped to nearly nonexistent, my leisure time was a thing of the past, and I did not even try to read for fear of being interrupted (I hate being interrupted when I am reading.) Sometimes I find myself speed reading blogs or an attempted book(I would almost call it fear reading, because I read so fast and always have an ear out for trouble or some child or another in need of me that I don’t enjoy it at all.) I have started to pull back from blog reading/writing, something I really like, because of this. Ugh.

    I need to carve out time, a consistent space, for me to read, be it book or blog, because I think you are so very right that reading lowers stress. Something I could very much benefit from. And now I am internally cheering to myself for actually not only reading your post but finding the time to, gasp, comment while the kids played happily by themselves. 🙂

    • I am cheering you, too–thank you for reading, and taking the time to comment, because it does take time, and energy.
      Being interrupted is one of the most difficult parts of motherhood for me–multitasking stresses me out. One more reason reading is even more important for moms who feel the same. I wish I had some tips for how to make uninterrupted reading time, but I don’t. Except this: for some reason, I find it easier to be interrupted if I’m reading nonfiction. Even if it’s really great, engaging, nonfiction, I don’t mind reading in short bursts. Reading fiction tends to immobilize me. And that won’t do :>.

      • I agree with that, fiction sucks me in and I get peeved when interrupted. I read Reader’s Digest and that is good for fragmented reading because the stories are short and quick. Oh, and multitasking stresses me out too! Carter is watching his 30 minutes of allowed morning tv so I am off to speed read a few blogs if I can! 🙂

  2. When I was teaching, there was so much to read and so little time, that I chose what I read during the school year very, very carefully, saving the involved, heavy-duty novels/reading for summer. Then I would stick my head into them and not come up for air…well except when the boys needed mom for hugs, bandaids, beach walks, etc. Later, driving long distances to work I found books on tape, and I realized my need just for words. I still read hardcover, in my hands books, but also listen to them on an iPod, and have them on CDs in the car. It’s something about the flow of words through my mind and it does indeed, reduce my stress levels. The more the world whirls, the more I need the words. My own son with ADD is an avid reader, his escape i’m thinking.

    • Yes, the flow of words. It’s obviously so important to Mbot, and so interesting that it’s important to your own son with ADD. Thank you for sharing that.
      Thanks too for reminding me of audio books. I listened to some years ago while I was commuting and loved them, but had trouble finding unabridged versions in our small library and somehow the flow of Reader’s Digest condensed versions doesn’t work.
      I like to hear how carefully you chose your reading, and when to read what. (Did we really keep you that busy? I find that easy to believe :> ) Thinking in such practical terms about why I’m reading what when will perhaps help me feel more in control–and therefore, less stressed out.

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