When the news that we were all going to staying at home for a while broke, lots of us had grand plans.
Finally a chance to get fitter, cook healthier, set up that side hussle or simply get through all the books on your bookshelf.
And although people have been picking up new things with varying success, many people say that unexpectedly, reading more has been something they’ve struggled with.
Despite having some more time and a limited social life, getting absorbed in a good book is tough, even for avid readers.
Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis summed it up when she tweeted: ‘Ok. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels. Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter? Or as I suspect the plots and problems now seem to belong to a slightly different age. Book tips?’
So why is getting stuck into a good book so much more difficult right now?
Sarah Lewis, Consultant Psychologist at Appreciating Change, explains: ‘When we feel under threat we become more alert to danger, including becoming hyper-vigilant. We are fully focussed on ascertaining the source of the danger. Think of when you have been startled in the night by an unexpected noise. Immediately you think -is someone in the house?
‘All your blood rushes to your muscles to prepare for action, chemicals are released that activate your nervous system for fight or flight, your attention focussed right down on to that sound, straining to make sense of it. Then you realise it’s your son knocking over the hall-stand trying to creep in; relief rushes over you and your aroused system calms down.
‘The problem with C-19 is that stage two, the resolution of the danger, the flood of relief, doesn’t come. Many of us remain in a stage of hyper-vigilance, unable to divert our attention elsewhere in case we put ourselves at risk. Logically it makes no sense but our nervous system doesn’t know this. But this is why it is so hard to ‘lose ourselves’ in something like a good read; at an unconscious level we are scared to let our guard down until we know the danger has passed.’
As well as the impact of feeling like we are in danger, the pandemic means that we are spending a lot more time in front of screens.
Many of us are working at home, socialising with friends in front of a screen, doing all our shopping online and according to Dr Anna Mandeville, Consultant Clinical Health Psychologist, that can also have an impact on our ability to read books.
She adds: ‘Much is still being discovered about how our brains handle reading in different media.
‘Some research has shown that reading from screens is more mentally draining and we may find it harder to remember what we have read.
‘Research from Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University tells us that reading is a body/mind process. A bit like navigating a physical landscape, holding a book or paper and turning pages plays a bigger part than we think. Our brains like to get physically involved with what we read. Why then can it seem onerous when we are presented with a whole book?
‘The instant gratification of screens means that we have the ability to take more shortcuts – browsing and scanning rather than steadily reading and absorbing. We lazily skip over text that’s more demanding rather than rereading and checking if we’ve understood. Does this make books better?
‘It’s a bit both and depends on the situation. Interactive screens can integrate videos and graphics the physical page simply can’t. So it’s about adding to our behavioural flexibility.
‘We may need to set ourselves up differently to read books on paper. If your brain has got very lazy you may need to ‘pace’ yourself and build up your real book stamina again, but get the right mental set up for a book. Slow down. Be mindful. Really savour the tactile and sensory experience of your book.’
You might be more interested in picking up a new hobby like baking or gardening, even if reading was always part of your routine before lockdown.
Dr Matteo Ria, Consultant Psychologist of Pall Mall Medical says: ‘As many of us feel like our emotions are highly charged as we adapt to the country’s ‘new normal’, reading may seem like more of a chore than a pleasure.
‘With so many other relaxation activities available to us at home, such as watching a film or listening to music, it may be easier and more enjoyable to opt for these as methods of relaxation as they require less output from our own minds.
‘The entire nation has had a shift in perspective since the lockdown began. Even people who previously felt that their lives were somewhat carefree now have new worries and stresses to deal with.
‘That being said, these new, draining emotions are able to affect even the most avid of readers, causes them to lose their previously keen interest in picking up a book. The focus and emotion required to enjoy reading may just seem like too much at this moment in time.
Even though you may suddenly have more time than you expected, many of us are spending that time alone, or with the same few people and Dr Ria explains that is also part of the problem when it comes to reading.
‘Reading is very much a solo task where we like to close off from our world and get lost in another. We are already feeling disconnected from our normal lives and we may prefer to spend the time we once dedicated to reading to communicating with loved ones via apps such as House Party or Zoom.’
Similarly, you may have previously made time for reading on your route to work or during your lunch break but with work routines changing, figuring out where reading fits is more difficult.
‘Whenever or wherever you previously liked to read, the chances are that this routine has now been interrupted,’ Dr Ria says.
But even if you are struggling to get into reading a whole book, try easing yourself in with magazines or picking up something lighter than what you normally do.
Dr Ria says that if you can manage to get back into reading, it can have many benefits during this time.
He says: ‘Reading is a great method of relaxation and has proven to have many health benefits such as allowing us to destress, helping us to fight depression and lowering our blood pressure. As we all adjust to our new way of living and begin to feel less anxious about the current situation, I’m sure that Brits will fall in love with reading again.
‘If you are feeling anxious or stressed and believe it’s beginning to affect your regular routine, we would always recommend discussing your concerns with a GP who will be able to advise on the best next steps for you.’