In my 20s I had a job that brought on a horrible bout of anxiety. The potent mix of my lack of experience and confidence and not much support at work meant I felt in a constant state of unease. Everything inside me jangled, from my nerves to my mind, and it felt like I was never fully able to relax. But for an hour a day, I got some respite. Every lunchtime I’d take my book and spend an hour reading. It almost didn’t matter what book it was. Just the act of getting lost in a fictional world was a salve.
That anxiety has come back several times since then, although never as badly. The middle of the night and early mornings are often when my mind goes into overdrive, and being able to pick up my ereader and dive into a book is one thing I know that really helps.
I’m not alone in finding reading soothing. A 2009 study by the University Of Sussex found that reading reduced stress by 68% in its case studies (measured by a slower heart rate and relaxation of muscles). There's even a name for it - bibliotherapy. The concept is pretty much as it sounds: using books as a remedy for all sorts of ills, from heartache to anxiety. The School of Life, co-founded by philosopher Alain de Botton, now runs a Bibliotherapy programme, where bibliotherapists will prescribe novels based on a reader's needs.
The NHS is increasingly highlighting the benefits of reading for mental health issues. The charity Reading Well offers a books-on-prescription scheme which helps people to understand and manage their mental health – all the book lists are chosen by health professionals.
I said earlier that the book itself didn’t matter but there are some reads better-suited to calming anxiety than others. Anything involving a character racing against time or in a dicey situation is too much for me. Some self-help books do as they promise and actually help, but not the shiny-shiny, stay positive types. For me, the best calming books have enough of a narrative to get lost in, some gentle humour and a chance to step into the shoes of someone other than myself for a while.
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I first read this wonderful series during night feeds with my new baby when I was feeling lonely and overwhelmed. The quartet of novels begins in 1937 and covers a decade in the fortunes of an upper middle-class family. Although these books aren’t without heartbreak, there’s something very soothing about reading about the daily rise and fall of their lives. The fact that there are three more books after the first, The Light Years, just adds to the appeal.
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
In the early 80s Nina Stibbe moved to London to work as a nanny for the editor of a literary magazine. Love, Nina is a collection of her charming, often hilarious, letters home full of stories of her new life in the capital and the exploits of the two boys she looks after. Her brilliant ear for the funny things children say and a beady eye for the little details of domestic life make this an engaging read.
Very Good Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
It's impossible to read PG Wodehouse without finding something to laugh about on pretty much every page. This collection of stories has wit and warmth and always lift my spirits.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
There are very few writers who can make me cry with laughter like David Sedaris. Inspired by his move to Paris and the french lessons he takes, this collection of essays is pure joy. There's lots of scope for hilarity in his mispronunciations and cultural differences - and he does squeeze them for all he can - but its his razor-sharp eye for the absurdity of modern life that is so good.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
In a small town in Colarado, a teenage girl finds herself pregnant and homeless until the quiet and gentle McPheron brothers offer her a home on their farm. Haruf's writing may be spare and unsentimental but there is so much much humanity packed into this book about the kindness of strangers you can't help but feel hopeful.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There by Cheryl Strayed
You might know Cheryl Strayed as the author of huge best-seller, Wild, about her epic solo trek along America's Pacific Crest Trail. For a long time she was also the anonymous agony aunt for a website called The Rumpus. This is a collection of her best correspondence. Cheryl’s advice is so wise and her warmth comes through vividly in her writing. She makes you realise that lots of people struggle with life and that you are never alone.
Devotions by Mary Oliver
"You do not need to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves." So begins the beautiful poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, lines that have brought me great comfort more than once. Her straightforward imagery makes this a poetry collection that's accessible and enjoyable for all.
The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
If your idea of a comfort read is a Miss Marple or a Poirot, you'll love this. When a literary editor gets the latest manuscript from her best-selling crime writer she's delighted - she knows fans love his detective, Atticus Pünd, a celebrated solver of crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. But all is not as it seems and within the pages of the book are clues about a real-life murder. This clever mystery-within-a-mystery had me hooked from the start and was fiendish enough to distract me from everyday life.
Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked by Lesley Garner
If I ever wake up early in the morning with that horrible tight-in-the-chest feeling, this is the book I grab. Written in bite-sized essays, it’s like a first aid kit for your soul. The advice ranges from simple ideas like keeping a ‘nice letters’ file to techniques to use when you're in full-blown panic mode.
Self-help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes
Just looking at the cover of this book makes me feel calmer. It was first published over 50 years ago but the advice in it on dealing with anxiety is still so relevant. It’s the gentle tone and the author’s empathy that makes it really special. She explains very simply how the nervous system works and how to ‘float’ past the feelings you’re experiencing. Life changing stuff.
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