Can audiobooks improve our mental health?
With mental health problems on the rise and provisions overstretched, we are seeing a process of re-recognition of the healing and preventative powers of activities like taking a walk, breathing in the sea air, paying attention to bird song, or – our favourite – reading or listening to fiction.
Reading fiction has the power to ease anxiety, reduce stress and alleviate feelings of loneliness, and audiobooks are quite possibly the most efficient way to do it.
Fiction eases anxiety
If anxiety is understood to mean having difficulty stopping or controlling worrying, reading or listening to fiction is a powerful antidote. When we get absorbed in a story, we’re drawn out of our own headspace and plunged into another world for a while. Being involved in a character’s relationships, problems and preoccupations not only helps us realise that we’re not alone with our worries, but also forces us to let go of them for a while.
In a 2015 report by Dr Josie Billington from the University of Liverpool, participants were asked what helped them break out of a low mood or anxiety most quickly. Reading a book came out on top, above going for a walk, watching TV, or even talking to friends.
Exploring why reading fiction is so potent for taking our minds off things, Billington poses that fiction takes place within a narrative structure, which means that – however often real life interrupts our reading – in the story, “the future takes care of itself.”
Fiction reduces stress
If you’re part of the 43% of people the UK who found that reading helped ease their stress levels during the lockdown of 2021, you’ll know that getting absorbed in a fictional story is great for breaking negative mental patterns, distracting us from the constant news cycle, and offering us new perspectives to see things from.
A US study in 2009 found that reading was just as effective as yoga and laughter for reducing stress in students on a high-pressure university course. And it’s not just psychological: reading was found to actually reduce participants' blood pressure and heart rate.
“Such soothing effects of the story were particularly visible in a participant who, during the poetry reading at the start and close of the session, had been easily distracted (fidgety in body, eyes and head, and excessively aware of the attention and behaviours of other group members) but became stilled as her absorption in the story overcame other claims on her attention.” - Get into Reading study, 2012.
Fiction alleviates loneliness
As an avid fiction reader I can attest that when you’re really into a book, the characters and even the book itself become like friends. Being immersed in their world reminds us that life is right here, and we’re just as in touch with it as everybody else.
An Australian study into interventions against social isolation noted when interviewing over-65s that "if the interviewees could be viewed as self-medicating to alleviate feelings of loneliness, the most common medicine reported was books."
Curling up on the sofa with a book is medicinal in itself, but the other huge benefit is that it gives us something to talk about. Whether with family, friends, a carer or a book group, a book is an easy route into conversation that goes beyond the superficial. Discussing our interpretations of a character’s actions or our responses to an event in the plot is a gateway to opening up about our own lives, experiences and perspectives.
So why audiobooks?
In the last couple of years audiobook listening has grown exponentially, with many listeners citing convenience and accessibility as the main reasons, as well as being an easier medium through which to have a shared reading experience. A 2022 report by the National Literacy Trust found that 44.3% of UK adults listened to audiobooks in their spare time, and
70% of them said that listening to audiobooks made them feel less stressed and anxious, while 67% said that listening to audiobooks cheered them up when they were feeling down or depressed.
The presence of another voice in the room gives us a sense of warmth and companionship that enhances all the inherent mental health benefits of reading a good book.
That's why at Audrey, where our mission is to get people reading more fiction, we focus on audiobooks.