Why Books Are Comforting to Anxious People

This is a guest post from Nicole Froio. Nicole is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She writes about human rights, feminism, pop culture, and politics. She is an intersectional feminist who blogs at wordsbynicolefroio.com. See more here. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleFroio.

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Anxiety is a burden many people carry every day. Often, if you haven’t found the right ways to get out of the anxiety cycle of negative thoughts and panic attacks, you have to find something to distract yourself. When I was at my worst, the best thing to bring me down from a crisis was reading a book.

I had always thought this was because of the escapism element stories give their readers. Before opening the book, you find yourself in an unbearable world where you cannot breathe or stop thinking painful things. Once you open it and get yourself involved in the story, you have escaped that unbearable world.

As I have come to better understand my anxiety, which I still have to deal with every day, I started to realize that the comfort books gave me wasn’t only because of escapism: it was because I didn’t have to wait very long for the story to unfold. Ask anyone who has anxiety and they will tell you: a great source of our worries is the unknown future that stretches before us and the pain that it might bring us. I know, it sounds kind of silly to start suffering about the possibility you might suffer in the future, but to people who suffer from anxiety, the unknown is not only terrifying but sometimes even debilitating to our present lives.

What comforts me about books in terms of anxiety is that, once you are involved in the story, you go from the beginning to the middle to the end. Even if the structure of the narrative isn’t that simple or straightforward, I have the whole story right there in front of me and I don’t have to wait so long to see if the main character will be in danger or will get their heart broken. The next big event is just a page away, and it’s something I take comfort in when I feel like my life is unpredictable. When I am reading a book, I know the story is already written and no mistakes I make could possibly change the outcome; it’s pretty much set in stone. The same doesn’t apply to our lives and this unpredictability is what upsets me.

One of the most comforting books I read when I was pretty down and out (not in Paris or London) is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I could heavily relate to the narrative of being apart from my significant other and was rooting for a happy ending that fit my own expectations of life, so I read the words fast and hungry. And it gave me comfort for days.

But this kind of comfort is also reachable when I don’t particularly identify with the narrative. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a book I could not put down until I finished it. Dystopian novels have an extra layer of comfort since I always read them as cautionary tales: I feel they represent what happens after the moment of destruction I fear actually happens. The results of a destroyed world or a destroyed life are always awful to read, but at least I know what happens.

Reading books with this perspective really got me thinking about how I think about my own life. Why do I want my journey to be as straightforward as they are in books? Is it because many of my favorite books have a happy ending? Or is it because I wish my life was as simple as cause x will result in effect z, like a cake recipe?

In the end, I think it is just comforting to know that stories move forward and that one day I will reach the point I fear so much. And if those characters can go through so much pain and survive, surely I can, too.

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