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Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.

Curling up With a Good Book Can Be a Mood Booster

Reading may seem old-fashioned sounding, but it has lots of brain benefits.

"You can't possibly be serious. You actually suggest that people read Anne of Green Gables as therapy?" gasped my good friend, and analytically oriented, therapist-colleague.

Well, of course I do. And Harry Potter and The Secret Garden, The Secret Life of Bees, Lord of the Rings, Holes, The Professor and The Housekeeper, The Invention of Wings, The Art of Mending, Tell the Wolves I'm Home and books by Louis LaMour or Lurlene McDaniel, Jane Austen or Erica Bauermeister or any author whose novels represent people whose characteristics reflect good decision-making, optimism, strength in adversity, and so on.

Recent research shows that reading literature helps people make more thoughtful decisions. And I believe it allows people of all ages to reflect on what makes people's lives turn out as they do. Video games are fun and distracting, but mostly demonstrate how fast you are at making swift, strategic, spatial decisions. They don't add much to your ability to reflect, consider, choose and act.

What my clients with depression need are templates of how to BE. How to be a person who is not depressed, how to be strong, how to accept challenges. And they need VISION. They need a vision of how things might turn out okay in the end if you try, or are persistent, or take action even if you don't feel like it. The characters in literature have some depth and their stories involve hard decisions carried out in challenging circumstances. Novels make for good distraction, high involvement and entertainment, but they also are working on your brain in important ways.

The act of reading itself is a help. Reading activates your brain to visualize what is happening, it arouses your emotions (to manageable levels) when you have been feeling flat. Reading pushes you to think ahead and imagine outcomes and then see those outcomes tested out against the author's vision. You are using a lot of your brain to do that. A good novel will play in your mind even when you are not reading it, arousing empathy for the protagonist and perhaps even for the characters who display weakness or whose flaws prevent them from success. Now you are getting your depressed brain going!

The content of the novel can encourage you. If you are depressed while reading about the struggles of a character you identify with in some way, you can see the benefits of acting from your strengths and values even when you do not feel like it. The encouragement and bolstering of reading these kinds of stories stirs hope, an oft-missing feeling in a depressed person. That activation of circuits in your brain for encouragement and bravey can open your eyes to new options for your own life.

When I felt at the nadir of my life, reading Anne of Green Gables was full of unbearable tension. (I know, I know. If you have read the series you are asking yourself "What unbearable tension?" But I was not in good shape emotionally, and I felt my anxiety rise as I read, fearing her blunders would result in disasters. It is the way anxious misery affects one's perspective.) But reading these novels, seeing how Anne's need for "scope for the imagination" led to mistakes but also triumphs, helped me feel calmer, more optimistic, and distracted from my own anxieties and depressed mood. Other novels helped. Books by Louis LaMour were distractions and never raised the tension too high because his good, honest men of valor won over the bad guys every day. Lurlene McDaniel's characters faced even death and dying with character and everyone learned from their struggles. Jane Austen's writing encouraged patience in trouble and the significance of good character. Harry Potter was never perfect but kept on being true to his nature to be caring for others but also brave and determined and accepting responsibility. This could also be said for the Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings who was flawed but courageous. I could list endless choices here for people of different ages and genders (or for readers like me who read everything) like Jodi Picault, Sue Monk Kidd, or for those who are more interested in action there is Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series or Lee Child's Jack Reacher series or the much briefer Spenser series by Robert Parker. I could go on.

This contribution of literature should not be ignored by people who are depressed. I realize that in our techno culture people are reading less, but that should not mean we do not suggest novels to people of every age. Reading can be done by listening to the novels. I will talk about using movies in my next blog: the great benefit of techno culture is entwining some of the value of novels with the ease and entertainment of watching a movie.