I love reading, but I get serious book anxiety—here's how I cope

When I was growing up, my anxiety disorder affected me in lot of ways, but never when it came to reading. I read everything, but fantasy novels were always my favorite. Give me a badass woman knight with a talking cat, and I’d be content for hours.

In college, fantasy took a backseat to my new literature love: Shakespeare’s plays. I became a hardcore Elizabethan nerd, and changed my major to study Shakespeare and his history almost exclusively. When I finished my BA, I looked back on my reading lists and felt insecure: I’d done so much in my specific area, but there were so many classics and different time periods that I hadn’t read. I felt like an English major fraud.

I had been looking forward to the freedom of graduation, of getting to catch up on books I had missed out on while I read the complete works. But once I was actually graduated, I felt completely overwhelmed with my To Be Read list. As my stack of TBR books grew higher, my anxiety climbed along with it.

I’m one of those compulsive used book buyers, so I had shelves of books I hadn’t read yet. Plus I had so many books that friends had lent me that I hadn’t gotten to while I was in school. I became totally freaked out about choosing what to read next: was Moby Dick my top priority? Could I even call myself a book nerd if I’d never read To The Lighthouse?! How was I supposed to suppress the urge to re-read all of Tamora Pierce?!!

For a while, reading anxiety crippled my book life. I panicked, and got stuck and wouldn’t read anything. Or I’d try to read five books at once and make zero progress. I couldn’t open a book, read it, and enjoy it all the way through — whenever I tried to, worries would start nagging at my mind, pulling my thoughts away from the story.

Is this book really that important?

You should be reading a lot faster than this.

If you haven’t already read this, there’s no point in doing it now.

When had reading become about checking books off a list?

My anxiety made it nearly impossible for me to do the thing I love more than anything: reading, analyzing, talking about literature of all sorts. Breathing in the turning of pages. I had to realize, and then admit to myself, that anxiety disorder had infiltrated my reading life. I didn’t want to believe it, but the first step in calming anxiety is recognizing that it’s happening.

When you have anxiety disorder, it can creep into all parts of your life. My anxiety around reading is worse when I’m more stressed out in general. That being said, there are things I’ve figured out that help sooth my anxiety around books, which is important — because if I can calm down and actually do it, reading really helps my overall stress level.

So far, here are the techniques I’ve discovered that minimize my anxiety about reading.

Use the library so you don’t compulsively add to your collection of books

Using the library more can help your anxiety and your bank account—taking out one or two books, and returning them, is so much less of a commitment. Definitely buy books you’re excited about, but don’t just buy them to fill bookshelves. This has helped me so much, because my literal TBR pile isn’t constantly being added to and creating a larger sense of foreboding.

Live in the book moment

Just read every day, and try not to count the pages or chapters.  Right now I’m re-reading Dracula, and I’m consciously making the effort not to pressure myself to read quickly — I’m just focusing on immersing myself in the narrative. With Dracula, that’s easy, because it’s a thrilling book, full of bats and blood and very dramatic letters about impending marriages.

Accept that the TBR list is never-ending

All we can do is pick out what we want to read next, and try not to let the crushing reality of reading mortality crush us. You’ll read what you read, and you’ll take away great things from those books, whether they’re classics or mysteries or badass female-lead fantasies.

I really don’t love how anxiety disorder affects my life. But I know my love of reading is always going to prevail—my anxious mind craves stories to be swept up in; distractions from all my worries. Once I get going, being in a book never fails to make me feel better.

[Image via Miramax]

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