Throughout school, I was a bookish child. You know, the kind who loved the library and devoured a book a day whenever they had the chance. Reading and writing were so important to my identity that I couldn’t imagine a day going by without peering at a book.
When I went to university, things changed. I had less time to read for pleasure and was inundated with academic reading. The last thing I wanted to do was stare at more words.
My mental health started failing around the same time my love for reading did, but it took me a long time to notice the difference between the two. The joy reading always brought me slipped through my fingers. Nothing brought me much joy when I was in a depressive state; everything was too much effort with too little payoff.
As university progressed, I collected more traumatic events than course credits, and my mental health got worse. Eventually, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I dropped out.
When I dropped out of university, I had more time and energy to read for pleasure. Surprisingly, I found I couldn’t.
That’s not to say I couldn’t sound out words or spell them — I literally worked as a writer at the time — but it was excruciatingly difficult to understand what I read.
I found myself reading a paragraph over and over again without understanding a word of it. Or, if I actually managed to read and understand anything, I was mentally fatigued after just a few pages.
This was happening to me, a lifelong bookworm, a writer, a lover of literature. I felt useless. Awful. Out of touch with the bookish person I always thought I was. It wasn’t just that I struggled to read, it’s that I struggled to enjoy it. Who could enjoy such a monumentally difficult task?
When I asked around about what was causing my sudden difficulties with reading, I was surprised to hear that many of my friends who also had mental health challenges were having the same struggle.
“I always thought it was that university sucked the fun out of reading,” one of my friends said. “But now I’m pretty sure it’s tied to my PTSD.”
Something else we all had in common? We all blamed ourselves for struggling to read.
Most of us felt like we were just lazy, stupid, or not persistent enough. In my case, I felt like a fraud — someone who claimed to love reading and writing, but in reality, couldn’t read more than a few pages a day. The books I bought and never read sat on my shelf, taunting me.
It turns out there’s a psychological reason for this problem, and we’re definitely not alone. According to psychologists, it’s pretty common for mental illnesses to affect one’s ability to read.
“Trauma absolutely affects cognitive ability, concentration, our ability to learn, and yes, even our ability to read,” says Alyssa Williamson, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma. “I commonly have clients come in thinking they have ADD or ADHD or anxiety, and many times they’re actually dealing with trauma.”
But why exactly does trauma affect our ability to read? To understand that, we first have to understand trauma.
When we sense danger, our body prepares us to go into flight, flight, or freeze mode so we can protect ourselves from danger. At that moment, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain responsible for reading, math, and other deep-thinking tasks, is put on pause.
“If someone develops PTSD, that mechanism gets stuck. The body no longer believes you’re safe, no matter how well you know that cognitively,” Williamson says. “As a result, the brain acts as though the dangerous event is happening over and over again, creating flashbacks, a variety of physical symptoms, and shutting down the prefrontal cortex where academics and reading can happen.”
Trauma can also affect the way we relate to others. Since reading often requires empathy, or imagining ourselves in the characters’ shoes, it can be very difficult to handle when you’ve experienced trauma.
“Reading is a higher-function activity and one that requires us to allow ourselves to be absorbed in the mind of another in order to ‘receive’ their communication,” says Mark Vahrmeyer, an integrative psychotherapist.
“If we are carrying unprocessed trauma... we may be able to read the words on a page — mechanically, like a machine — but we cannot use higher brain function to make sense of [them].”
“[It’s also hard to] allow ourselves to imagine the mind of another... In a dysregulated state of feeling overwhelmed, there is no ‘other’, only threat,” Vahrmeyer says.
In other words, if we don’t process trauma, we become so overwhelmed that we struggle to think, analyze, and empathize with the people and emotions we read about.
It’s not just PTSD that can affect your ability to read, Williamson says. “Concentration problems happen in all sort of illnesses. Most of us know that people with ADD or ADHD will have trouble concentrating, but difficulty focusing shows up in a variety of diagnoses.”
This can include mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder and nearly all of the anxiety disorders, including PTSD, OCD, generalized anxiety, or social anxiety. “Trouble concentrating or reading is also a common companion during grief, especially after an unexpected loss,” she explains.
The good news? Many of these conditions, including PTSD, are treatable. Therapy is a great starting point and one that’s recommended by both Williamson and Vahrmeyer. Experiment and use coping techniques that feel helpful for you.
And while you work on healing, there are a few things you can do to improve your relationship with reading:
1. Stop tying your identity to reading
I winced as I typed that sentence, because even I feel attacked. So many of us bookworms make the mistake of reducing ourselves to our love of reading (and writing). So, the second we stop enjoying the act of reading, we feel like frauds, or we feel like we don’t know who we are.
That’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under, friend!
Take a moment. Think about who you are outside of reading and writing. What hobbies do you like? What ones would you like to pick up? Practice that, and enjoy it.
2. Read books you actually like
We often feel pressured to read the so-called classics, even when we don’t enjoy them. Sometimes we read these to fit in, to impress people, or to seem smarter.
The truth is that not everyone enjoys the classics, and when you’re getting back into reading, high-brow and complex novels can be tough — even more so if it actually bores you. Instead, read something you actually enjoy, even if it isn’t regarded as a “great” book.
Let’s let go of the snobbishness around books. Read romance. Read biographies of reality stars. For heck’s sake, read something you love — because that’s the best way to motivate yourself to read.
Life is too short to read books you don’t actually like.
3. Try audiobooks
Just as there’s a lot of snobbishness around reading the “classics,” there’s also a lot of snobbishness around audiobooks. Many people don’t regard them as “real” reading, or they believe people who prefer audiobooks are just lazy.
My advice? Ignore those people, and take advantage of this great medium.
Many people find it easier to process auditory words than to process written ones. I’m the opposite. I find audiobooks pretty challenging, but you might be different.
Audiobooks can reignite your love for reading by making storytelling come alive for you. Not to mention, listening to a book can be easier than reading one in some situations, like if you’re driving, working out, or doing household chores.
4. Read short stories and interesting articles
If the thought of reading a whole book exhausts you, try reading shorter bits of writing. This can include:
- short stories
- magazine or newspaper articles
- online articles
Ultimately, those all involve reading and processing written words. Intentionally reading shorter pieces of writing can be a great way to get back into reading long books. Think of it as taking a few short runs before entering a marathon.
Of course, the first step is recognizing the link between your mental health and ability to read.
When I realized my ability to read was changing due to PTSD, I could approach the situation with a little more self-compassion. Instead of beating myself up, I could say, “There’s a logical explanation for this. It’s not an indictment of myself as a person.”
I took my time to get back into reading, and I’m reading more and more each year. With every turn of a page, I remember my joy and passion for reading.
If PTSD or another mental health condition is affecting your ability to read, know that you’re not alone. Fortunately, it can be treated, and it can get better. I’m a living testament to that fact.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.