Why you should read a book before bedtime if you’re feeling stressed

Posted by
Miriam Balanescu
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A new book aims to help adults rediscover the joy of bedtime stories. But why are they such a good way to end the day? 

Many of us couldn’t wait to listen to bedtime stories when we were little. Whether it was The Tiger Who Came to Tea or The BFG, we were taught as kids to doze off to a book. So why is it that as adults, many of us prefer to scroll through our phones instead of reading before bed?

There are always more photos to like and more emails to respond to. But this compulsion to scour our screens isn’t good for our stress levels, especially not right before we switch off for sleep. Blue light of the kind produced by phones, tablets and computers increases the release of cortisol – nicknamed “the stress hormone” – in the brain, making us more alert. It also inhibits the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes sleep feel more inviting. 

Given these well-known negative side-effects, perhaps it’s time we put our phones down and rediscovered the wonders of the bedtime story.

A forthcoming book, Bedtime Stories for Stressed Out Adults (out 18 October, Hodder & Stoughton), seeks to provide alternative reading to WhatsApp messages and Instagram captions. A collection of dreamy short stories by writers such as Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield and Oscar Wilde, it is introduced by Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan

She describes it as an attempt to recreate the “lost joys” of childhood reading “for stressed out adults, driven mad by the demands of home, family, work and the hopeless porous boundary between all three”.

But why is reading before bed such a good idea? We delved into the research to find reasons why you should swap your phone for a paperback this evening. 

1) It really does make us less stressed

Reading can dramatically reduce stress levels, according to a study by the University of Sussex. As we lose ourselves in a book, our heart rate slows down and tension in our muscles decreases, helping us shake off the stress that we’ve accumulated throughout the working day. Reading for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by as much as 68%, the study’s findings show.

Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, who oversaw the study, believes that this is because immersing yourself in a book is an effective way of distracting the mind from potentially stressful tasks. What’s more, the escapism and imagination required in reading engages your mind in ways that prepare you for sleep. 

2) It’s good for our mental wellbeing – and our relationships 

Reading not only has surprising mental health benefits, but it can enrich our everyday relationships by making us more confident and empathetic. One survey of over 4,000 people from a representative sample in the UK revealed that people who read regularly for pleasure reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and also had higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Other studies have found that reading for pleasure increases empathy across cultures.

Later in life, a love of fiction may even reduce the risk of dementia. Two large-scale studies carried out in the US have shown that diving into novels, over and above reading newspapers and magazines, is associated with a lower subsequent risk of developing the illness. 

3) Reading on paper makes us feel more connected to a story

If you enjoy reading before bed but generally use an e-reader, consider this. Naomi Baron, linguistics professor at the American University, surveyed over 400 students from the US, Japan, Slovakia and Germany over the course of three years.

She found that 92% of them found it easier to concentrate when reading from a paper printout as opposed to smartphones, laptops, e-readers and desktops. Physical copies of texts also made the students feel more connected to what they were reading, telling Baron they could “see” and “feel” where they were in the text.

Other research has shown that people are more likely to remember details of a plot when reading it on paper instead of on a screen – suggesting that physical books are the way to go if you want a story to really stick with you.

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