Guest Post: Escapism Through Reading: Healthy Coping Mechanism or Serious Addiction?

We’ve all had those rough days where we finally get home and nothing sounds better than sitting down with a good book. Maybe it’s the book you started yesterday that you can hardly put down. Maybe it’s the book that’s been on your to-be-read pile for months. Maybe it’s one of your favorites that you can practically quote cover to cover. Whatever the case, reading offers a great reprieve from the struggles of life. 

However, the question always remains: Is reading a healthy way to deal with life’s problems, or is it just a way to shove them aside for a little while? Let’s explore this issue a little closer. 

What Is Escapism?

According to the American Psychological Association, escapism is “the tendency to escape from the real world to the delight or security of a fantasy world.” When dealing with difficult times, it’s sometimes nice to take a break from the real world and shift our focus elsewhere. Whether it’s issues like difficult family situations, workplace stress, depression, anxiety, or any number of difficult circumstances, escapism allows a person to temporarily mentally remove themselves and relax. 

When discussing escapism methods, they often come down to two distinctions: constructive and destructive. Constructive methods are things that are considered healthy releases of stress. These may include listening to music, going for a walk, journaling, reading, writing, etc. Generally, anything that involves time for self-reflection or meditation is considered constructive. Fort Behavioral Health goes so far as to describe these as forms of “positive escapism.”

Conversely, destructive forms of escapism keep people from facing reality at all, often changing brain chemistry and leaving life-altering damage. These may include drugs, alcohol, gambling, or other things that are easily addicting. Rather than encouraging personal growth and exploration, these keep people from seeing themselves at all, providing quick happiness and euphoria that it’s hard to make real life live up to. 

What Makes Reading Unique?

As you read this, you may wonder why reading specifically is viewed as such a positive form of escapism. What makes reading so special? Simply put, reading offers many benefits outside of simple entertainment. 

First, reading is proven to naturally reduce stress throughout the body. A study performed in 2009 found that reading for just half an hour reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and conscious feelings of stress just as effectively as yoga and laughter. Reading at a time of high stress can help calm down the biological effects, and in succession, the general feelings of anxiety. The added bonus of reading is that it’s generally acceptable in public spaces, whereas shifting into downward dog may raise an eyebrow or two. 

Reading also allows people to feel a sense of connection. This is especially helpful to people with depression and anxiety that may find themselves feeling isolated, but it’s beneficial to anyone whose stressful situation has left them feeling lonely. Reading fiction, or even nonfiction, enables people to develop a sense of connection with somebody that they haven’t met (or that technically doesn’t exist). Just because the relationship may only be one-way doesn’t mean that the benefits are any less real. 

Reading is a great way to gain new perspectives on life situations. As psychology expert Angela Buttimer describes on, “It’s also helpful to read books about people who have gone through the same things we have. They may have a way of describing their experience that helps us articulate our own experience.” Reading can help us put into words the things that we are thinking or feeling, and it’s also a great way to see that we are not the only ones that may have those thoughts or feelings. Furthermore, reading may help us further develop empathy by allowing us to better understand the perspectives of people around us. 

Finally, there are much worse habits to form. Any bookworm that is active on social media has seen a screenshot or adaptation of Tumblr user bookeworm94’s post that reads, “‘It could be drugs,’ I whisper to myself as I buy 37 new books with no shelf space and a tight budget. ‘At least it’s not drugs.'” As a dedicated reader, I’ve seen this screenshot across posts and platforms, even transcended into TikToks and Instagram reels. It’s short, it’s funny, and it gives all of us readers a good laugh and reassurance that we’re not alone in our habits. But let’s take a serious moment to consider habits and addictions; it could be drugs. As I said above, drugs are a common form of destructive escapism, and drug addiction can cause seizures, brain damage, and death due to overdose (among many, many other issues). Comparatively, reading is not known to cause any of these things. Still, the question must be asked. 

Is Reading Addiction a Real Thing?

Short answer: yes. As with all activities that provide your brain with dopamine, too much at a time from one specific substance or activity will leave your brain wanting more. As you indulge your brain and continue to read an unhealthy amount, you will need to read more and more in order to reach the same satisfaction. However, it takes quite a lot of reading to truly be considered an addiction. 

If you find yourself genuinely concerned that you may have a reading addiction, consider the following questions: Is reading the only thing in your life that brings you joy, pleasure, or satisfaction? Do you spend too much money on books and reading-related things? If you answered yes to the above questions, or to many of the questions listed here, it’s time to consider that you may actually have a problem. Being unable to think of another activity or object that makes you happy, or finding yourself spending so much money on books that you do not have enough left over for food, rent, and other basic necessities are both unhealthy mindsets and behaviors. 

The good news is that while a reading addiction may cause some disruptions in your life, it is possible to make a full recovery. Consider talking to a therapist to help develop a healthier relationship with reading. 

So Is Escapism Through Reading Healthy or Not?

Ultimately, it depends, but in most cases, using reading as a form of escapism is perfectly healthy. Not only is reading advantageous for the body, but it can also help you develop positive connections, work through your own difficult situations, and keep you from much more detrimental habits. Read on, bookworms! It’s good for you. 

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