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Struggling With Your Mental Health During the Pandemic? Reading Might Help.

Sam Cedar

As families and individuals have been driven further into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have turned to the wealth of instantly accessible media at our fingertips as a source of comfort.  

Initial figures reported by Forbes as released by Omdia, the tech research arm of Informa Tech, have indicated that internet use has surged by between 50 and 70%. Additionally, online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus are likely to see profits grow by as much as 12%.

However, running for the remote might not be the healthiest solution for boredom and anxiety available.

Dr. William Weaver, an Associate Professor of Literature at Baylor University who specializes in literature of the Protestant Reformation and the European Renaissance, claims that reading could serve as a more viable alternative.

“I’m interested in looking at a really strong tradition in the Great Texts, and that is thinking about reading, writing, and discussing literature as a form of therapy – as a form of healing. Not all of us are cut out for the monastic existence. We need some contemplation – we need some reflection in our lives – but we’re not all cut out for extended periods of reflection, and so we’re going to seek out some form of recreation."

Weaver contends that while there are plenty of easily accessible recreation sources available to us, say through the internet, they are often counterproductive in combatting our anxieties.

"Leaving toxic kinds of content on the internet aside, if you’re following a newsfeed all day long, under the circumstances it’s probably going to leave you more anxious at the end of the day then you began it.”

According to Weaver, writers and philosophers throughout the classical tradition, including the likes of Boccaccio, Boethius, and Seneca, have viewed literature as a particularly useful tool in combatting the strong passions – emotions prevalent in the COVID-19 era such as anger and fear – in the face of uncertainty and isolation.

“Literature, telling stories, reading, and writing have long been recognized as a way to moderate these two needs. Our needs for contemplation, on the one hand, and recreation, on the other hand.”

Weaver cites literature’s slower pace and ability to contextualize complex ideas and experiences among the unique advantages offered by reading over things like streaming and scrolling.

“It takes simply more time to read literature for most of us, and so that engages the mind in a different way. It allows for a certain type of receptivity that’s not allowed with audio or video. I think also, because literature is written in a certain way, it has complexity within a unity. It engages our mind to compare different parts of what we have experienced, say in a short story or even a novel or poem, and there’s a complexity there. It’s not hard to find complexity today, but finding unity and being able to reflect with confidence that this complexity can be reduced to a unified vision – that’s something that uniquely literature does.”

Specifically, Weaver points to works with a dialogic character, or texts that offer multiple unique perspectives, as those which the classical tradition might deem most useful during periods of social isolation.

“The power of literature here is to engage our imagination in a way that allows us to empathize and to get a different frame of reference on our particular anxieties and worries. That’s one of the great parts of this ancient philosophical therapy; many of our anxieties it seems stem from not having a right perspective, so empathizing with others who are suffering and perhaps suffering greater than we are, and attending to others needs is a real help here.”

Next time you feel your anxiety ramping up while isolated, think about dusting off that book you’ve been meaning to read. It just might be of use.

For KWBU News, I’m Sam Cedar.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.