A stack of summer reading on a porch. LYNDA M. GONZÁLEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Photo: Lynda M. Gonzalez
Photo: Lynda M. Gonzalez

It's in a book! Why nurses should read for stress relief and joy

Ironically, Elizabeth Binsfield didn't read for pleasure much when she'd just finished earning her English degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I actually went a good long time without reading after college," she admitted. But she picked up the habit again after switching careers and becoming a nurse years later.

When she no longer had to read to pass classes, she gravitated toward historical fiction with romance thrown in. "I adore the Outlander series of books and I've reread them numerous times," said Binsfield, who's been a registered nurse for 20 years. "I also enjoy travel writing (think Bill Bryson) with a smartass twist."

Binsfield has tapped into a benefit almost any nurse could use: reading. It's inexpensive, ultra-accessible and good for body and spirit, according to research.

» 5 books every nurse should read

It's one of those "never too old" health benefits. While researchers spend a lot of time and effort shoring up the relationship between reading for pleasure and children's educational success, the benefits hold for adults, too. Keeping your brain active and engaged can slow Alzheimer's and prevent dementia, for example, and reading definitely fulfills that requirement. Reading fiction has also been linked with an increase in empathy; the very act of reading fiction can be a mental health exercise in the art of mindfulness.

"Among healthcare professionals, mindfulness training can reduce psychological and physiologic stress, emotional distress, and burnout while improving empathy, job satisfaction, and sense of well-being," according to American Nurse Today.

Steve Wooten's firsthand experience as a bibliophile backs up the science. "You lose yourself when you read; you're in a different world," said Wooten, who holds a bachelor of science and nursing and retired from nursing after 24 years. "Your imagination can really work then, as you create themes and scenarios, pictures in your mind."

» Why every nurse should practice mindfulness (and how)

And most importantly for a nurse, Wooten added: "Your stresses and everyday life go away for a while. You can be a different person, any of the characters in the book, for the hours that you're reading."

Wooten particularly connects with books by Stephen King, his favorite author. "He's detailed enough to really get you into his world, I love it. And he's got that dark streak, which is perfect for a nurse's point of view. His scare tactics are also ideal for us adrenalin junkies." Wooten's favorite title is “The Tommyknockers,” the tale of a small metal object that turns a tiny Maine town into a death trap.

Wooten emphasized that short stories and longer works by King provided both escape and brain food. But while he enjoys audiobooks from King and others, particularly for a boring commute, he said it doesn't provide the same benefits. "Your concentration when you read, having to interpret the words, that's what puts you in the state of mind where you can forget your stress and be in another world," Wooten explained. "Audio, not so much. Listening to a book allows you to concentrate on something else, like driving, and you're just engaging with the book as the secondary function. You don't lose yourself."

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And while it almost seems a shame to ruin the stress-relieving qualities of reading by focusing on its brain-building attributes, neuroscientists at Emory University have proved that reading improves brain function while it relaxes the body. Their 2013 study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate resting-state brain activity of people who read fiction over a period of nine days. They discovered positive changes in connectivity, some of it lasting as much as five days after the novel-reading. "At a minimum, we can say that reading stories—especially those with strong narrative arcs—reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days," lead researcher Dr. Gregory S. Berns told Literacy Works.

"Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory," he added in a Mother Nature Network interview.

If you need further encouragement to take part in this therapeutic pastime, here are a few ways to revive your interest in reading:

  • Join in on your high schooler's summer reading list. Not only is it fun to see books like "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Poisonwood Bible" through your child's eyes, but the shared enterprise will also give you a good way to bond. (Even if it's just complaining about how Jane Eyre is way too much of an enabler, or that certain selections go on for about 50 pages more than they have to.) Don't have a high schooler? Sites like Good Reads offer any number of fun lists that are sort of similar, like "YA Books Far Better Than Twilight."
  • Take a book to the beach. First, make sure you arrange to take those mental health days or 4-day weekends that are so important for combating burnout. And then leverage the mind-body benefits by reading while you're there. A paperback is usually best for this purpose. Pick one up at the used bookstore to save money, or see if a friend has a book to spare.
  • Sign up for a summer reading initiative. There's that "never too old" theme again. Plenty of public libraries offer a summer reading "challenge" for adults, complete with suggested books and small-scale incentives. The Northwest Regional Library System, for example, hosts "A Universe of Stories," where adults who read 1,470 minutes (24.5 hours) by July 22nd are entered into a pool for a grand prize.
  • Join a book club. You may not experience all the intense bonding and lifelong friendships that are showcased in the movie. But book clubs are a social way to engage with books and might keep you accountable for continuing reading. You can find a suitable book club through local bookstore postings, the public library or on Meetup. But remember: Even though the social benefits of being in a book club are also beneficial and stress-relieving, they're not as helpful if they devolve into a chat-and-snack session. To get the mindfulness and stress-relieving benefits, you have to read the book!
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