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The Covid Reading Block

by Natasha Hatherall-Shawe

At first I thought it was just me, but as time went on I realized it wasn’t. Something happened in Covid times that made it near impossible for many of us to focus and read a book. Did this happen to you too?

I love books and I’m a fast reader too. When I used to do the London tube commute, I’d get through 5 books a week and on a typical week holiday 5 or 6. So, when we all went into lockdown and there were less social times and we all embraced spending time at home more, it seemed the natural thing to do was to read more and get through the hundreds of books I always buy but never read.

Or maybe not. Something really odd happened and I could not read. And I mean I really really could not read. I tried many times, but my focus was gone, I struggled to make it through a page without putting the book down, yet alone a chapter or an entire book. It’s now over 2 years since we all entered this crazy phase of our life and I have read one book only and this was truly not easy and it took about 67 separate sessions to get through it.

I didn’t think about it a lot at first, I put it down to many other reasons, but then I started hearing other friends say the same – so it did make me wonder, why did Covid make us struggle to read? Especially when many of us have had all this extra time to fill? And more to the point, will I ever be able to read again??

If we look at Covid and what it really is and represents to us, it’s a very unsettled, even traumatic time. None of us really have been through anything like this and it’s going to take its toll on many areas of our life. As with any trauma or difficult situation it’s really tough to focus when we’re stressed or anxious and for lots of us this has been a way of life for near 2 years. Many of us lost jobs, had partners who did or lived not knowing if we’d keep our jobs for many months. We lived with a media frenzy and fear over an illness like no other and an unpredictable one that was killing even the healthiest and fittest of us. We were separated from our loved ones, we could not get back to our home countries, money worries plagued many with reduced salaries, the stress of home schooling and making children understand the unexplainable – the list goes on. When you start to say it like this, it all becomes a lot easier to understand why many of us were struggling to focus and get through the pages of a book yet alone go on a reading marathon.

Stress and anxiety reduce our ability to focus and read and many psychologists have now started looking deeply into reading patterns during Covid too as it really was a “thing”. The lack of focus required for reading, is a product of the brain’s fight-or-flight response that anxiety can trigger. We no longer feel safe and our body reacts to that. Why would you be able to read the latest best seller when your body is feeling every sign of being in danger?

On the flip side, how easy was it to binge watch TV and feed our Netflix habit? Very!

The increased time on content digital platforms and TV reduced further the time people spent reading. Consuming media online or on the TV is more passive and you don’t need to engage your brain in the same way you do when you read.

It’s kind of all starting to make a bit more sense now right?

So, does this mean we’re destined not to read until we’re out of this phase? Or is there hope? It seems from the research I’m finding that there is hope and some tips to get you back turning those pages.

Firstly, choose your book wisely. Don’t assume the type of books you always enjoyed reading before Covid will be the same now. A lot has changed and maybe too have your reading habits. Maybe now a biography or a non fiction book would be a better option as they’re based on facts and reality and maybe don’t take you to places you’d rather not be – death, high emotions, plot twists etc. History books have been mentioned by many as an easier read as taking you to another era can help keep anxiety at bay. Maybe just don’t go back to the plague era ;) Even if you feel somewhat safer reading kid or teen books right now or a more digestible magazine – it’s all reading and it all counts. Now is not the time to take on the entire work of Dickins!

Secondly, if you really can’t read something or you’re not enjoying it cut your losses quickly and move on. Don’t feel bad about it. Just put it back on the shelf and don’t give it a second thought. When you’re struggling to read persisting is not the best strategy.

Change your views too on reading success. Whilst traditionally we may have zipped through a book in a few days or a week. Maybe now as the ability to focus is harder, we need to set smaller bite size targets to get us back into reading. Maybe a page a day or even a week is enough for now? Think small!

Rituals are also really important in helping here. What makes you feel less anxious or happy? Is it your bed? Lying on the floor? A candle burning or essential oils to rub on your wrists? If you get your environment right, then this can help lots too. Try and build a habit, even if it is attempting one page a day to get you back on the road to where you want to be. Leave your phone alone too. Pour yourself a cup of tea or a tipple you like too if it helps.

Maybe now is the time to embrace a book club? I’ve seen quite a few friends joining recently and it seems this is working well as you get that accountability factor and the social setting seems to take away some of the anxiety too. Can’t find one? Create one!

The good news is from all I’ve read and from speaking to my psychologist friends, our reading memory muscles will kick back in one day and these tips and tricks do all definitely help, so our ability to read, relax and zone out as we flip the pages will return one day. Let’s hope it’s while we still have our eye sight!

If a couple of years off reading was one of the main side effects for the Covid Era for me, then I think on reflection I’m totally ok with that!


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