If you asked my friends and family if I'm an anxious person I'm pretty sure that the answer would be a resounding, "Fuck yes, she is. She's off-the-wall and it's really fucking annoying, but we still love her." Or something like that.
I've lived with anxiety since the dawn of my time on this Earth. I remember crying in the third grade because I forgot my library books at school on library day. There were absolutely no consequences to forgetting your book at home, but that didn't matter to me. From seventh grade to tenth grade I took the bus to school. Every morning I'd arrive thirty minutes early to the bus stop and worry that I'd missed the bus because there were no other kids there. Because they were still at home with the intention of arriving to the bus stop at a reasonable time. I also compulsively worried that somehow the bus stop had changed overnight and I hadn't gotten the message.
I call my mom fifteen times in a row when I'm anxious and talk subjects to death, consumed with worry, only for things to turn out fine. And then do it again the next day. I spent twenty years living with an inexplicable fear of being the last one awake at night. I can't explain that one. It's irrational.
I'm not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States alone (a whopping 18.1% of the population). That's a whole bunch of people and those numbers were pre-Covid numbers so...I'm guessing it's gone up quite a bit in the last two years.
My anxiety manifests in a number of ways: in the car half-way to work only to turn around and drive home because I had a fleeting thought I forgot to lock the door, tapping my hair straightener fifteen times to make sure it's off, looking under the bed for murderers (that's actually because I watched Pet Sematary in the 8th grade), and touching the stove burners to make sure they're off (what would I do if one was on?!). The one that drives people up a wall is that I cannot stand to watch a movie without knowing the ending. I have to google it, otherwise I'll sit there with my heart beating out of my chest, my palms sweating, and totally unable to enjoy myself.
People think it's absolutely bonkers that I prefer my movies ruined. But I don't consider anything ruined. In fact, I consider the whole experience salvaged when I don't have to sit there panicking the entire time. As a romance reader I--and I'm sure you--are no stranger to the "why do you enjoy reading romances novel, you always know how they're going to end" argument. And I'm sure you're just as frustrated as I am with it. "But that's what I like about them," you say emphatically and watch the other person's nose wrinkle in confusion. They just don't get that it's not the destination, it's the journey.
It took me a while to be able to put my feelings into words. It wasn't until a meeting with my therapist when I was attempting to dissect yet another aimless spiral of anxiety that I stumbled across an explanation that finally made sense to me.
"Maybe I read romance novels not in spite of the repetitive structure and required happily-ever-afters," I mused to my therapist, "Maybe I read them because of those things." It had never occurred to me before that moment that I enjoyed them because they were the one medium in which I felt completely safe. Then my jaw dropped open and I sat there wondering how I'd never understood before.
Other movies, shows, and books, while ultimately enjoyable, always left me feeling on edge (unless of course I looked up the ending). Meanwhile I could read romance novel after romance novel and, though they occasionally stressed me out three-quarters of the way through, I rarely found myself flipping to the end to find out what happened (I mean, it does happen occasionally because I'm a monster, but it's usually more that I'm too impatient to discover how things resolve).
I immediately ran to Instagram to check how many other people had figured this out before me. I ran an anonymous poll in my stories asking whether any of my followers live with anxiety (professionally diagnosed or otherwise) and the results were about what I expected. 283 individuals responded: 263 said yes, 20 said no. My follow-up question was a little more specific, asking whether they thought their anxiety influenced their choice in reading material. 216 said yes, 44 said no.
Again, not surprising. I was slow to realization, but other people already knew what I'd just discovered. Reading romance was like a salve to the burn of anxiety that I lived with every day.
Reading, in general, is known to reduce anxiety substantially. The website Psych Central says, "the simple act of reading can given us a psychological shot of courage, reduce anxiety, and encourage growth." According to a study by Emos University novel reading can enhance connectivity in the brain and improve brain function overall. In fact, after reading a novel, positive changes persisted in a person for up to five days! If you're reading a book a week you can coast on those good vibes for quite some time.
What could be more alluring to those suffering from the side effects of anxiety than a book that simply takes away everything we have to be worried about (if only for a short period of time)? Happily-ever-afters abound, comforting and reliable book structures, wrapped up side plots, bad guys getting their comeuppance, good guys (or the good bad guy) getting the girl, the heroine learning to love herself and accept nothing less than what she deserves? I mean, seriously, it's like all the power of an anti-anxiety drug packed into 500 words or less. But, if you're on anxiety medication you should definitely keep taking that and not replace prescribed medication with a book... that would be irresponsible.
Obviously we can't rely on romance novels (or books in general) to change our lives all on their own. They are certainly no substitute for therapy or medications. But it's still a relief to know that reading books can have similarly positive effects to our mental well-being as sports or yoga or meditating. So the next time your family member gives you shit for bringing a book to a get together or some guy from work pokes fun at you for your choice of reading material...just tell them you're working on your mental health.