I was once someone who would wake up in a panic nearly every morning, rushing to open my laptop and get to work before 7 a.m. For years, I thought this is just how I functioned. After all, I worked from home and could eat my breakfast and guzzle down some caffeine while stomping my fingers on a keyboard.
This morning ritual — though I would hardly call it that now — was something I never thought twice about. And, it certainly was not something I thought was an issue. After all, by starting work earlier, I could get it out of the way and be left to enjoy some “me time” in the evenings.
That all changed when I began to shift from my usual optimistic, happy-go-lucky self and started to become riddled with anxiety and depression that caused me to live in a constant state of that panic and overwhelm I allowed myself to lean into in the early hours of the day. Something had to change — but what? At the time, I was in such a state of mental disarray that all of the hobbies I once loved were like ghosts to me. Because everything felt so heightened, I shut myself off from my beloved crafting rituals like crochet and painting and I stopped reading books cold turkey. though, I was still ordering new books because I have always loved to read (and stare at them on my bookshelf) and thought maybe I could get back to them one day.
That one day came soon enough as I had finally hit a breaking point and felt completely lost on how to get back to myself. Those hobbies were a huge part of me and I always felt more connected and centered when I leaned into them. But, I often felt too tired and run down to do anything after a long workday. Through a lot of soul searching and therapy, I came to the conclusion that I needed to take my mornings back by doing something productive but not panic-inducing. Something that would make me feel accomplished yet grounded at the same time. This is the origin story of my morning ritual: Reading for a minimum of 30-minutes (while fueling myself with tea) without looking at my phone or checking my email.
It might feel like a small adjustment, but these 30-minutes created a profound shift in my mental health and my relationship to work (and working from home, where the lines of work and home are often too easily blended together). With each word, sentence, page, and chapter, I began to feel a reunion to self — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
“What we do in the morning set the tone for the rest of our day,” Laura Sgro, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles explains. “Scrolling on our phones or jumping straight into work can activate a stress response, but creating intentional time to do an activity that is mentally nourishing, such as reading, starts the day on a much more relaxed and pleasant note,” she adds. I have experienced this first-hand. And, at the time, had no idea how much that stress response wasn’t serving me. Sure, it gave me that hustle edge at work but that isn’t sustainable and isn’t reason enough to sacrifice my mental health and personal time over.
Beginning the day with a good book isn’t about the book itself — though it can feel that way if you’re someone who loves a good story, like me. It’s about mindfulness. “We know that practicing mindfulness is an incredibly beneficial way to start the day and reading is actually similar to other mindfulness activities such as meditation or yoga because it requires us to be present and truly focus on what we’re reading,” says Sgro.
The Benefits of Reading
Thanks to its essence of mindfulness, reading comes with a host of benefits that I began to benefit from. Not only was starting my day with reading good for my mental health, but the benefits of reading in general also began to make improvements to my overall well-being.
“Aside from neurological benefits like improved cognitive function and increased neurocognitive activity, reading has been shown to decrease stress,” says Sgro. When we read, we step away from the stressors in our environment as reading “involves concentration and focus on an activity that is distracting in a positive way,” Sgro adds.
Reading might sound like an isolating hobby but it can be the complete opposite. “There are so many social benefits to reading,” says Sgro, adding that book clubs are a great example of how to have social interaction through reading. “This type of connection can create a sense of community, understanding, and the natural bonding elements of shared experience,” Sgro explains.
Being social through a book club or book discussion isn’t the only mental health benefit of reading that inspires feelings of connection. Sgro says that reading can be incredibly helpful for those who experience depression, which can ignite feelings of isolation from others. “Relating to characters in a novel can help us feel like we aren’t alone,” says Sgro.
Increased Self-Compassion and Empathy
“Reading has been shown to increase empathy,” says Sgro. “And, while many of us are naturally empathetic toward others, viewing the world through the fictional eyes of a cherished character — especially one who is hard on themselves or faces significant adversity — can actually help us become more empathetic and compassionate toward ourselves,” she adds.
Through taking my mornings back and leaning on my love of reading to support these efforts, I have experienced a full shift in my mental health and my priorities. Now, this morning ritual is an ingrained habit and my new mantra is that the day doesn’t start until I’ve finished my morning reading.