How reading can alleviate anxiety in teenagers

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by Michelle Naudé, MANCOSA School of Education

As always, Maya Angelou says it best:

“If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young”.

With anxiety levels among adolescents climbing steadily as we move further into the 21st century, parents and educators often feel at a loss as to how to help teens and young adults manage stress. Psychologists affiliated with the National Institutes of Health claim that the pressures of social media, the “culture of achievement” in which we live and “overchoice”, a neologism coined by Alvin Toffler in 1970 to describe feeling overwhelmed by seemingly infinite options, have left one in three youths struggling with anxiety-related disorders. South African teenagers, unfortunately, are not faring much better than their American counterparts, with 24 percent of surveyed grade 8 to 11 learners experiencing some degree of anxiety and/or depression. Socio-economic issues prevalent in our country such as poverty, child-headed households and teen pregnancy all contribute to these alarming statistics.

So what can parents and educators do to assist adolescents and young adults with coping with high anxiety levels? We can encourage them to take a leaf out of Maya Angelou’s book and read! Reading has long been considered therapeutic and not only for its physiological benefits such as lowering one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Research shows that just six minutes spent reading can reduce one’s anxiety by up to sixty percent, making it more relaxing than listening to music or going for a walk. “Bibliotherapy” is a relatively new term for this concept which is almost as old as literature itself — above the chamber where King Ramses II of Egypt stored his books read the words, “the house of healing for the soul”. Reading is also inexpensive and widely accessible, unlike more formal modes of therapy. In the digital age, teens do not even need a library card to access a plethora of stress-reducing literature – they simply need a cellphone. Websites such as Project Gutenberg and Planet eBook offer a vast range of books available for download and online reading, making bibliotherapy one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to de-stress.

Becoming immersed in a narrative offers the reader a healthy dose of escapism and allows him/her to gain perspective regarding his/her own life. Unlike browsing social media platforms or competing with peers to achieve the highest marks, reading gives teens the opportunity to look inward rather than outward. One of reading’s chief benefits is a greater capacity to feel empathy towards oneself and others. Since a lack of meaningful social connections and poor self-worth are cited as leading causes for teenage depression and anxiety, it makes sense that these mental health concerns can be alleviated by opening a book. Mirror neurons, located in the premotor and inferior parietal cortexes, are activated when we perform certain actions and when we observe those actions being performed by others. Observing the actions of others extends to reading about the actions, thoughts and feelings of literary characters, which creates the impression that we are sharing the experiences of our favourite heroes and villains, and enhances our ability to feel empathy towards them. By putting his/herself into the characters’ “shoes”, the reader considers the world from the characters’ perspectives and focusses on their goals, hopes and fears whilst reacting to these on a personal, emotional level. Reading about other people’s emotions can also normalise otherwise stigmatised feelings, and show teenagers that they are not isolated in their experiences. Additionally, observing the ways that characters cope with challenges can act as a blueprint for action or even an example of how not to react, assisting the youth with handling their own struggles.

Due to its therapeutic potential, therefore, reading can assist us in achieving “mindfulness”: a mental state in which someone is aware of him/herself, his/her surroundings and physical senses, and accepts his/her emotions and thoughts without judgement. The practice of mindfulness has its origins in Eastern philosophy and is traditionally attained through meditation, but the act of reading is also conducive to reaching this state of mind. Both meditation and reading are cerebral, concentrated activities with a clear purpose. In order for reading to be mindful, time must be set aside to read as opposed to cramming in a few pages in the doctor’s waiting room, and the reader must pay attention to the details of a text such as the writer’s use of diction, rhythm and characterisation. As with meditation, reading can also contribute to the rewiring of the brain, a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity”. When one regularly experiences anxiety, the neural pathways associated with this anxiety become stronger. In order to combat this, new pathways must be forged to replace those evoking feelings of stress. Our brains rewire through learning new information and repeating actions, and so regular reading with a focus on the “here and now” will strengthen the neural pathways associated with compassion, visualisation and calmness. Bearing in mind the dynamic and demanding world of work into which young adults are expected to enter, it is hugely beneficial for the youth to develop good reading habits before the age of 25, when the brain’s potential for neuroplasticity decreases. The more teenagers read, the more malleable and therefore creative and adept at problem-solving their brains become!

The development of a reading culture in South Africa is promoted by MANCOSA, a rich-distance higher education institution based in Durban. MANCOSA’s “Million Books Project”, started in 2019, aims to provide learners across the country with reading material via mobile libraries. The books can be wheeled between classrooms, allowing learners to access an array of literary texts and broaden their horizons, improve their vocabularies and understanding of grammar, increase their emotional intelligence and develop healthy ways of coping with anxiety. In addition, MANCOSA’s School of Education encompasses the iTeach Lab, which has an amphitheatre dedicated to encouraging and facilitating reading, writing and speaking among students using ICT.

As author Kilroy J. Oldster puts it, “Contemplative thought, especially that supplemented with reading literature […] provides us with the potentiality for change, the possibility of personal illumination that enables us to experience a heighted quality of life.”