Back to basics: How instituting a nightly reading ritual has become my favorite stress reliever

After kids, Ronnie Koenig had no time to read. So she made a resolution in January to read 12 books this year, and what she learned along the way surprised her.
Woman reading book in bed
Reading as a part of your bedtime ritual can help signal to your body that it is time to go to sleep.Luis Alvarez / Getty Images
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By Ronnie Koenig

Read any good books lately?

As a mother of young twins, that question was a mostly laughable one until this past year. An avid reader as a child, I grew up devouring novels. My passion for the written word led me to become a writer. But my reading for pleasure began to taper off when I got my first job as a magazine editor in my twenties. After staring at copy all day, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was read some more. But it was really the birth of the twins that brought my bookish pastime to a screeching halt.

As most new parents know, there’s hardly time in the day to do anything for yourself. And if some moment presents itself for “self-care” it usually takes the form of mindless television or internet scrolling. Reading books on parenting held no appeal — I was already doing the mom thing all day, I didn’t want to read about it when they were finally asleep. I had zero ability to concentrate on the plot of a novel. Even the short, humorous tales from David Sedaris, whose writing I adore, held no place in my muddled mind.

Re-instituting reading as a self-care practice

I know that by not reading, I’ve been missing out, and according to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at UCLA and author of “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World”, picking up a good book would have many benefits, including making me more capable of empathy and compassion and increasing my ability to learn new things.

“When you read, you are literally taking on the perspective of people, cultures, even civilizations that are different from yours,” she told me. “Reading helps us evolve our powers of critical analysis, making us less susceptible to false news and misinformation.”

Lauren Eavarone, a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist, told me that I wasn't alone: many of her clients express a desire to read more but feel disinclined to do it because they are so used to seeing it as a chore.

“Due to the fact many of our professional roles obligate us to read texts and emails, there’s a reinforcing message that conditions the brain to associate reading with responsibility. This acts as a barrier for some individuals, despite an expressed desire to experience reading as an activity that promotes wellness rather than one that adds to an already overly exhausted to-do list.”

Eavarone also told me that since there are so many health benefits to reading, it made sense for me to get over this mental roadblock and incorporate reading as part of my self-care routine.

Studies have found that reading is a great tool for decreasing symptoms of stress by lowering your heart rate, relaxing your muscles and reducing emotional and physical tension accrued throughout the day.

“Studies have found that reading is a great tool for decreasing symptoms of stress by lowering your heart rate, relaxing your muscles and reducing emotional and physical tension accrued throughout the day,” she said. “Being fully engaged in a book permits access to an altered state of consciousness, free from the awareness of anxiety and stress-producing life events.”

She also mentioned that reading can reduce risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, as it encourages mental stimulation and supports healthy brain functioning

These all sounded like promising benefits. So now that the twins are about to turn 8 years old, I decided to recommit to reading. Although life is still exhausting, between raising them and working, last December I made a promise to myself — I would read 12 books in 2019. That’s right: My resolution was to read, and not just because it was embarrassing that as a writer, I never read books! I wanted to get back to using my mind in a different way, not just for reading the label on the Swedish Fish packaging (which, actually, is pretty existential). No longer would that copy of “Anna Karenina” on my nightstand be used as a coaster. I would actually read it.

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The challenge: Read one book each month

I gave myself a head start by allowing my first book of January to be one I actually started reading in December. Padma Lakshmi’s “Love, Loss and What We Ate” was an easy celebrity read, but also a richly drawn picture of her life growing up in India and her sense of not belonging in either world as a young Indian woman in the United States. When I scrolled to the last page on my phone, I felt a strange sense of accomplishment. I had read a book! It isn’t every day that you get to complete something and actually finishing a book gave me the sense that I could do other things in life from start to finish. (Not the sorting of the giant bin of mail near our doorway, but surely other things.)

Next up on my list: “The Shortest Way Home” by Miriam Parker. This book transported me to a California vineyard in the middle of February and I suddenly remembered that written words have the power to take you to other places.

Since I was reading books on my phone, my husband still thought I was scrolling on social media. No! I insisted. I was not looking at pictures of beautiful reading nooks on Instagram. I was in actual literary pursuit.

But Wolf told me there’s a difference between reading books on my phone versus actual hardcovers and paperbacks.

“On the screen you tend to skim and miss details,” she said. “Skimming does not lend itself to the best comprehension that you’re capable of.” She told me that by giving my brain that extra millisecond to processes information, I’d be getting more out of what I read.

“When I want to read a serious article, I am reading in hard copy,” she said. “I honor the author of the article or book by giving it my best attention.”

As a writer myself, I had to agree with that. So for my next book, I went and purchased an actual hardcopy. This heavy square thing felt strange in my hands at first, but I quickly got the hang of it, and soon I was resting it on my lap and turning pages like a pro.

After reading two more books, I decided to revisit the writing of an old favorite. I had devoured Agatha Christie’s novels as a preteen and coming back to “Murder on the Orient Express” felt simultaneously new and familiar. Halfway through the book I began to remember the brilliant ending — but instead of making me want to put down the book, I was eager to relive the feeling of the story unfolding. It was then in my reading journey that I got that “can’t put this book down” feeling again. Now I really remembered why I loved reading so much.

A new nightly ritual for this mom — and my family

I know that reading books certainly feels more virtuous than staring at things on the internet but that’s not why I’m doing it. I strongly believe there’s still a place for checking out cool stuff on Instagram, watching TV shows and movies and even listening to podcasts. But the act of reading books transports me to a different time and place in a way that none of those other activities can.

The other benefits such as strengthening memory, expanding vocabulary, and gaining a greater appreciation for other cultures were just a bonus. I love the fact that it’s pretty near impossible to multitask while reading an actual book, which means I get to focus on one thing for as long as I’m doing it.

Eavarone told me there’s a reason that reading stacks up higher than watching TV or looking at screens as a bedtime ritual.

“Reading requires more of a neural workout than that of processing an image or sound, activating all four lobes and two hemispheres of your brain associated with language, comprehension and vision to work together.”

And cracking an actual book (versus reading one on my phone) is especially smart when reading before bed. “The light from the television or screen can disrupt your sleep/wake cycle, making for a lighter, more restless sleep,” she said.

I definitely agreed that reading before bed versus looking at a screen made me feel calmer. Eavarone said that simply having a bedtime ritual regardless of whether it includes reading, can lead to a better night’s rest because it signals your body and mind that it’s time for sleep.

Reading before bedtime can be utilized as a tool in signaling to your body it is time to go to sleep.

Lauren Eavarone, LMFT

“For those who may be experiencing difficulty getting a full night’s rest, research suggests reading as a ritual before bedtime, specifically a real paper book. It is likely that with the experienced reduction of stress linked to reading and developed associations through conditioning and routine, reading before bedtime can be utilized as a tool in signaling to your body it is time to go to sleep.”

I decided that reading before bed would become my new ritual; a way to wind down so that the last thing I see for the day is not a random picture of an acquaintance’s kid at soccer practice (though, yay for your kid!).

Wolf agrees that my practice is a sound one. “At 10 p.m. I turn off all screens,” she said. “I read one half hour to one hour in a book at night. Not only does it quiet me, it’s a chance to come back to myself.”

I’m currently on my seventh book of the year, so I’m a little behind, but I’m hoping that with the chillier weather coming I’ll have more opportunities to curl up with a book (which have unintentionally, at least at first, all been by women authors).

But one of the best unexpected benefits of my reading venture has been that I think it’s rubbed off on my twins. My son recently started his own nightly reading ritual and hearing his little Ikea clamp light click off when he’s finished for the night is one of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear. Through my reading journey, I’ve come back to myself, and maybe even brought my little ones along for the ride.

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