2020, mental health, Reading

Why it’s so Hard to Read When You’re Experiencing Mental Health Problems

I love books and books have always been a part of who I was. Years ago, when one of my friends was asked to describe me, in a game that a group of us were playing, he said “well…she’s always doing something vaguely bookish.”

I was the stereotypical bookworm as a child, reading way past my bedtime, always getting told off for reading with a torch under the covers and I always had a book somewhere about my person. I got a job in a library when I was 21 and have stayed there ever since. I enjoy blogging about books, reviewing books, buying books, looking at books, smelling books…you get the idea.

But, this year, after some serious mental health struggles and a very traumatic event I began to find, to my absolute horror, that I was losing my ability to read.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Now, I know this may sound impossible to some people – I mean how can you just not be able to read anymore? The only real way I can describe it is that it’s like some devilish being was blurring the letters if I tried to read more than a sentence. Even if I managed to read a whole sentence, when I got to the end I would not be able to remember what it was about.

My concentration became appalling. Even small things like opening a letter seemed to require superhuman-like strength to do. I was getting very, very sick and I had told myself that I would be able to seek some solace in getting lost in books, but as it turned out my traumatised brain just couldn’t.

How could this be happening to me? A lifelong bookworm, a writer, a lover of literature? I felt useless. Awful. Out of touch with the 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?

I started to feel that I had lost myself all together and was a fraud. Piles of books all around me that I wanted to read but just couldn’t, for what I felt was the sheer incompetence of my brain.

It wasn’t until I started therapy that I began to understand what was going on.

It turns out that mental illness causes huge distortion and disruption in the brain and that one of the symptoms of having a mental illness is is difficulty concentrating and not being able to read. While in my experience I was going through trauma and depression, it can happen in response to a large number of mental illnesses.

“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.”

It turns out for me, dealing with the unprocessed trauma in my body had elevated the “reptilian” part of my brain, where the flight, fight or freeze mechanism is, and remarkably slowed down my prefrontal cortex; so things like reading, writing and even remembering where incredibly difficult to do.

” Trauma can also affect the way we relate to others,” says Sian Ferguson, a freelance writer who went through a very similar experience to me. “Since reading often requires empathy, or imagining ourselves in the characters’ shoes, it can be very difficult to handle when you’ve experienced trauma.”

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

And of course, in amongst all of this is the current world situation of bloody horrible Covid-19. Turning the notifications off my phone completely did me the world of good, as every single notification was about death, lockdown or testing. If I let myself dwell on the world problems my anxiety would go through the roof and unfortunately my panic attacks would increase too.

While researching about my problems with reading, I came across an article about lots of people struggling to read during various global lockdowns and restrictions across the world during 2020 by Manavi Kapur . She writes that this struggle to read has spread at an exponential rate globally due to a parasitic anxiety from this very real threat.

Is there any good news, you ask? Well, while these symptoms and mental illnesses are horrific and debilitating – there is lots of help available and they are very treatable. My therapist has just been brilliant and I cannot thank her enough. Courses of CBT, medication and connecting with people in similar situations has been really helpful too. While I’m not 100% better yet, I feel like I’m starting the long road to recovery. Something, that a few weeks ago just felt impossible.

I’m actually opening books now and enjoying that initial delve into a story. I’m starting to get excited thinking about which book I’ll take up to bed and I’ve just finished my first book I’ve tackled in 3 months!

If you’re suffering with anything that you’ve read about above or are suffering in silence with a mental illness please get in touch with your GP or medical practitioner to start your road to healing. It’s horrible and I can totally empathise but I promise you it will get better. You’re not alone and we can get through this together.

Thank you so much for reading ❤️

Mental Health Links UK

Anxiety UK – advice and specialist help for dealing with anxiety

Mind – Promote the views and needs of people with mental health problems

Rethink Mental Illness – Support and advice for people living with mental illness

Samaritans – Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair

Sources that I came across in my research for this article and some extra reading if you’re interested.

Mental Health: Why You Could be finding it Hard to Read During Covid-19

Mental Illnehealthss Can Make it Hard to Read. Here’s Why – And What You Can Do

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