• People are finding it hard to read during the current pandemic, even when they have more time on their hands.
  • Psychologist Shyam Bhat thinks that the increase in anxiety, caused by COVID-19, could be making it hard for people to focus.
  • The rise in popularity of entertainment platforms such as Netflix has also made it increasingly difficult for people to pick up a book.

When India’s lockdown guidelines came in, people responded with collective dismay that books were not considered essential.

Under normal circumstances, I would squarely be in that category of outraged people. I consider myself an avid reader. But lately, I have found myself oddly unable to read. I stare at the large pile of unread books on my bookshelf and the two shiny tomes on my bedside table, but I haven’t been able to get through even a few pages every day.

I take solace in the fact that I am not alone. Several of my colleagues have complained that despite having “extra” time on their hands, reading seemed like a daunting task. Though the “extra” time is a myth given the increased household and parental responsibilities most people feel, it still feels counterintuitive to not be able to read when the calendar is cleared of social engagements.

The answer to this, according to psychologists, lies in the link between reading and mental health.

Stumped

It’s pretty hard to focus on the latest novel when you’re stressed out. Stresses at work or school, conflicts at home, or financial struggles can build up into larger anxieties that can paralyze thought and prevent people from doing basic tasks optimally. The pandemic can exacerbate this anxiety, as one is living the “new normal” of working from home, caring for one’s parents, and fretting about how social contact could result in infection. For some (but not all) people, anxiety can become a disorder that they should discuss with a doctor.

“Anxiety reduces one’s ability to read and focus, and those without a well-established reading habit may find it hard to keep up with reading,” says Shyam Bhat, a Bengaluru-based psychiatrist and physician. “This inability to read, in turn, can be detrimental to their mental health,” he adds.

The lack of focus required for reading, according to psychologists, is a product of the brain’s fight-or-flight response that anxiety can trigger. “…The body no longer believes you’re safe, no matter how well you know that cognitively,” Alyssa Williamson, a Texas-based psychotherapist specializing in trauma, told Healthline in 2019.

To be fair, this response is warranted—the pandemic poses a real, tangible threat, and people are doing whatever they can to cope. Sometimes that means trying to help their brains passively think about something else for a while.

The popularity of on-demand content on digital platforms and television has reduced the time people spend on reading. And as reading becomes difficult during a pandemic, the temptation to watch a film or series online increases. “There is a tendency to consume media such as shows on digital platforms because they are more passive and you don’t have to engage your brain in the same way you do when you read,” Bhat explains.

The result can be a vicious cycle—people watch TV because they’re stressed, but they can get stressed from watching too much TV. “Unfortunately, that kind of engagement increases stress in the long run especially if you do too much of it. Of course, entertainment in moderate amounts can help with anxiety, too,” he explains.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Reading can be therapeutic because it engages your brain in a more active way. Bhat, for instance, points to the practice of bibliotherapy, the use of books to improve one’s mental health. To achieve that, even during a time as stressful as a pandemic, it takes a little effort to consciously create a reading habit.

Do it for yourself

Not every book is right for you, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety during this pandemic. And not every reading experience should be in pursuit of a social media post about the number of books you read this year. It might be worth reading just for the sheer pleasure of it.

“It’s important to dismantle the idea of the perfect reader. Oftentimes, we do things owing to strictures imposed in a capitalistic world that redeems things, or activities that are done in the pursuit of gains, whether, in terms of information or knowledge, new words learnt, or most numbers of books read,” says Vidur Kapoor, a 30-year-old professional who runs the Fictional Book Club, a fortnightly book club that hosts meetings in Mumbai and New Delhi. “It was important to me to break away from that and find the reason I wanted to read. So figure out why you want to read,” he adds.

Same goes for books currently trending on social media. “Pick up a book or two from your shelf that you have been wanting to read. It could even be a book you want to re-read. Don’t pick one that you feel you should read or feel pressure because there is social media buzz around it,” says Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut Books. Sarkar says that these days she has found pleasure in reading the classics such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and The Duel by Anton Chekhov.

Finding the one

I often feel guilty putting down a book that I’m not enjoying after I begin reading it. Kapoor suggests moving on from books that are not working for you. “There are no ‘bad’ books, but there are books that don’t work for everyone. So I started leaving books unread if they didn’t work for me, the guilt that came with it was a bit difficult to overcome,” he explains. “But I kept reminding myself of my reason for reading and it helped to move on. We shouldn’t feel guilty of leaving books midway, unread—that’s a block that limits a lot of readers.”

The same goes for smaller chunks of books you are enjoying. “If I’d come across para[graph]s that seemed unimportant to plot, and had the author just stretch a particular feeling which would start to bore me, I would skip it. If I’d find a word that’s new to me, I’d circle it and park searching it for later,” Kapoor adds. The important thing is to get into the flow of reading.

During a pandemic, a non-fiction book about the collapsing economy, for instance, could induce further anxiety. Moving towards fiction during this time is a straightforward method to keep your reading habit going. “Even history books that transport you to a different era could be a good way to keep anxiety at bay,” says the store manager at independent bookstore The Book Shop in New Delhi’s Jor Bagh.

Build a habit

Staying consistent with reading can be a tough task at first, but there are simple hacks that can help you create a routine that blooms into a natural discipline.

Sarkar recommends a reading ritual to get back into the habit. She sets aside about 40 minutes every night. It takes a while to stop fiddling with smartphones and other gadgets. but once she settles in and reads, she finds it helps her sleep better.

She sticks to the following regimen, but you can tailor yours to suit your needs and quirks

  • Get into bed with a pot of herbal tea or whisky. She chooses matching cups for the tea for her husband and herself because it pleases the eye. “It may sound pathetic, but I like feeling yummy and cozy at this time.”
  • “I need to feel fresh and clean, so I do my bedtime toilette before this,” she says.
  • As part of this ritual, she checks that her bedside table water jug is filled.
  • “If reading in bed, cushions and pillow placements are very important. I use three to get the exact feeling of support and comfort,” she says.
  • She also searched extensively for the right bedside lamp which is neither too bright nor too dim to allow her to read without straining her eyes. “I ended up buying a very cute and super cheap Rs1,000 lamp from Ikea.”

There are other nifty tricks, too, that habitual readers swear by.

Find a tribe

A book club is a great way to hold yourself accountable to a reading discipline and find your way back to books. Book clubs can help you get all the psychological perks of reading, plus a powerful sense of community. “These community clubs also help to deal with urban loneliness, and the discourses and discussion may even help develop critical thinking,” says Kapoor.

A day set aside just for reading could also be a great way to get in extra face time with your new favorite book, perhaps once you’re further along this journey. Sarkar compares this to having meatless or alcohol-free days, and wonders if reading days could be something one could incorporate into one’s week.

Eventually, your reading muscle memory will kick in and these hacks will feel less deliberate as you go through that untouched pile of books in a way that makes sense for you.