I fell in love with audiobooks about three years ago. It was one of the most exciting discoveries of my reading life. It was one of those breakthroughs where you’re like, how did I survive up until this point without this? Once I started listening regularly to audiobooks, I never looked back. Especially when I’ve been dealing with long commutes on transit, audiobooks have been a godsend. I can read and not get car sick!
I’ve also started listening to audiobooks while working out, cleaning the house, walking the dog, cooking, and other household tasks and errands. It’s significantly bumped up my annual reading numbers. It gives me joy to know that I’m fitting in reading when otherwise I wouldn’t be able to. Performances by amazingly talented voice actors bring a dimension I would never have experienced. There are just so many great things about audiobooks!
But lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve been overdoing them, or maybe using them in an unhealthy way. Are audiobooks and mental health not a good combination for me? This hit me while reading a print graphic book on mental health, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from my Bipolar Life by Ellen Forney. (This book is fantastic, by the way. It has a ton of gentle, non-judgmental, inspiring advice and coping strategies for dealing with mental illness.) One of the strategies that Forney focuses on is meditation and mindfulness.
This advice about exploring meditation and mindfulness was not new to me. 2019 is the year I’ve made it a priority to stay on top of my mental health. In just the short amount of time I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation, I have really found them to be helpful. One of the ideas that’s in Forney’s book and other resources dealing with anxiety is being mindful. This means being aware of what’s going on in your mind and body in the present moment. Metaphorically running away from and ignoring anxious thoughts and symptoms are NOT helpful. Multi-tasking and not focusing your attention on what is happening stop you from appreciating the present. Setting aside time to meditate is a practice for bringing that kind of mindfulness and calm into the rest of your life.
For whatever reason, reading about these strategies again in Forney’s book triggered a realization in me about audiobooks and mental health. The ample time I’ve been devoting to listening to audiobooks is kind of the opposite of mindfulness. I sometimes find myself scrolling through social media on my phone and/or compiling or responding to text messages at the same time as I’m listening to an audiobook. I never just go for a walk or take the dog around the block without plugging in my headphones. In other words: listening to audiobooks all the time seems to be preventing me from being present and mindful. The format itself is actually allowing me not only to not focus on what’s going on around me, but to also not even devote my full attention to the book.
So where do I go from here? For one, I think I can put more effort into reading a print book when I might otherwise choose an audiobook. For example, when I’m on the train commuting and not on the bus I could read a print book, since that doesn’t seem to make me get motion sickness. Doing something else at the same time as reading a print book isn’t feasible. It would force me to focus just on the story.
Another change I think I could make is to make a point of not taking my headphones or even my phone when I’m going out for a short walk or errand. That way I can focus on things like literally smelling the roses! I could also make an effort to note when I feel like I can’t do a boring task without the stimulation of an audiobook. Is it really that bad doing nothing but washing the dishes for like ten minutes? If I am that scared of spending time alone with my brain and its anxious thoughts, that’s something I should investigate and work on, not something I should try to chase away by admittedly fascinating audiobooks.
I’d love to hear from others who listen to audiobooks and/or those of you who are readers who live with different mental illnesses. What’s your experience with audiobooks and mental health? For a different perspective, check out this Book Riot post about using audiobooks to help cope with emotional crises. You might also be interested in this list of Powerful Books about Mental Health and Mental Illness.