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How Can Audio Books Boost Mental Health? We're All Ears!

10 ways that being read to helps reduce stress, manage anxiety and lift mood

Magda Ehlers, CC0 Licence
Source: Magda Ehlers, CC0 Licence

Listening to novels and non-fiction being read aloud can help us become not just more well-read, but can improve mental well-being too. And whilst audio books are undoubtedly 'having a moment' with sales flourishing year-on-year, perhaps some of this success is because oral storytelling has a long history and draws on deep cultural and psychological impulses.


For many of us, our first experience of books is not reading to ourselves, but being read to by adults – by our parents, primary carers, nursery teachers. Perhaps this is where my new-found enjoyment of audio books stems from; they cast me back 50-odd years to my early childhood, snuggled up in bed being told The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle by Beatrix Potter or Hans Christian Andersen's Hansel and Gretal. I was blessed in that both my parents liked reading to me and I was of a generation when it was the easiest way to get me and my brothers off to sleep.

Sarah Rayner
Reading to my young niece and nephew.
Source: Sarah Rayner

Back then there were no electronic devices to tempt us with games and movies into more adrenalized activity. Being read to helped calm us, and self-soothing is part of the allure of audio to young and old today, allowing us to regress to being a child again in a safe, controlled way.


I appreciate that not everyone has a mum and dad who like reading as much as mine did (my mother wrote children’s books and my father, a psychoanalyst, was aware of the rich power of the stories we tell ourselves) but I am certainly not alone in appreciating the oral tradition of storytelling. Throughout history stories have been passed down this way. Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm -- even Shakespeare -- drew heavily on ancient tales that were handed like a baton in relay race from generation to generation. As Professor Helen Cooper of Cambridge University reminds us, the story of Hamlet was first written down around 1200, and was in oral tradition before that.

Stories provide boundaries: a beginning, middle and end to universal dilemmas. For millennia they have helped us make sense of the world, and non-fiction books, with their analysis of history, nature, lives, the universe and so much more, broadly aim to do similar. But print and ebooks do this, yet compared to audio, print sales are flat and ebook sales are in decline. Audio is the fastest growing segment in digital publishing and podcasts are booming, transforming the way we consume radio. Why the sudden rush to listen in a world where much more sophisticated technology is so readily available?


Sarah Rayner
An audio book is easy on the eyes compared to a printed or digital version.
Source: Sarah Rayner

Perhaps one reason is that we're visually overstimulated. I'm an author so it stands to reason that I love the written word, yet I find it hard to read when my eyes are tired. If I've been sitting at a screen all day, by the evening I'm worn out of focusing close-up. And you don't have to be a professional writer like me or my friend Laura Wilkinson (left) to spend a great deal of time looking at a screen -- according to CNN, the average American spends 10 hours a day staring at a screen, in the UK the figure is similar. Audio, on the other hand, stimulates a different sense -- by using our ears, we can relax our eyes.


Sarah Rayner
Listening to the spoken word can promote relaxation and contentment.
Source: Sarah Rayner

Perhaps another reason for the appeal of audio books is that they can help to boost mood. Those of us prone to anxiety and depression understand from bitter experience the negative spin cycle of thoughts that accompanies both mental states. Slowing these thoughts enough to read can be hard, if not impossible. Whereas audio does this for you. For those who find it difficult to quieten their inner demons, listening to someone else read aloud can help by replacing negative thoughts with something else.


You don't have to suffer from anxiety or depression to find being read to therapeutic -- books are a good antidote to stress, humorous books especially.

'They are like anger management for me. Now I relish traffic jams, delayed trains and planes and situations that would hitherto have tried my patience because I can listen to a bit more of my book,' says designer Jonathan Roberts.

The benefit is amplified because audio is one of the most intimate forms of media -- listeners work together with the narrator and author to create mental pictures of situations and characters. Audio books can captivate the imagination, allowing listeners to create a whole world at once within and outside themselves.

Sarah Rayner

My nephew and neices watching a story being read on TV. Note the tape measure boundary to stop them sitting too close!

Source: Sarah Rayner


Listening to a good story can also promote empathy. Reading aloud to children can showcase 'different experiences, backgrounds, religions, identities and more to help your child find him or herself ... as well as learn about other people’s lives. This will teach children the importance of empathy and kindness,’ says Amy Joyce in the Washington Post. And what's true for kids is true for adults too, though it depends on what we choose to listen to, of course.


Narrators make a story come alive and they don't need to be professionally-trained actors to do it well. It can be thrilling to hear one of your all-time literary heroes read his or her words.

'If the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it,' writes Neil Gaiman in the Guardian.

Hopefully I did a good job of reading the audio version of my own non-fiction book, Making Friends with Anxiety; as much of it is written in the first person, it would have seemed strange to have someone else speak about my experiences. (I'll allow you, dear reader-listeners, to be the judges of whether I pulled it off.) Obviously these things are subjective, but a poor choice of narrator can kill a book, fast. I've abandoned more than one audio version of a novel because the reader's voice grated on me, whereas others have added to the enjoyment, so one minute I feel as if I'm being stroked like a cat, the next as if I'm in the room, listening to a conversation.

Sarah Rayner
Source: Sarah Rayner


Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, audio books also allow us to transform mundane chores enriching a commute or car journey, doing the ironing or washing up. A workout can double-up as a chance to stretch ourselves mentally, too.

'I use up 'dead' time, even walking while listening to my book,' says Creative Director, Debbie Fagan. 'Audio gets me "reading" way more than I otherwise would.'


The benefits of audio books stretch into old age as well. Recent research shows that being read to helps maintain good mental health in the elderly. For older people who can no longer hold a book due conditions such as arthritis or central nervous tremor or who find text hard to read due to a visual impairment such as macular degeneration, audio books can be a way to access the literature that many of us take for granted, and the RNIB sell a portable player designed specially for the blind or partially sighted (£40 UK only).


Last but by no means least, listening to audio books is easy -- they can be downloaded via any smartphone, tablet, desktop or MP3 player. So when you're on the move there's no need to pack a book -- chances are you carry one of these tools already.

If you've not tried audio before, start small. Perhaps listen to the audio version of a book you already like or a short story by an author you have a taste for. Alternatively, if you’re feeling particularly anxious about it, there are, of course, one or two non-fiction books available on audio that focus specifically on managing stress and reducing worry and panic....

Sarah Rayner
The audio book of 'Making Friends with Anxiety' is available on Amazon and Audible worldwide (RRP $4.49 / £3.49 or free with an Audible trial).
Source: Sarah Rayner
Madelyn Mulvaney, used with permission
The audio book of 'One Moment, One Morning' is available on Amazon and Audible worldwide (RRP $20.34 / £17.25 or free with an Audible trial).
Source: Madelyn Mulvaney, used with permission
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