You Are Not Alone: How Literature Eases Anxiety

Reading or watching movies can often be seen as an escape, but books can also be a reminder to address difficulties in our life that we often try to ignore. This type of confrontational literature always stood out to me as the most impactful and emotional form of art. It’s hard to put down a book when you see so much of yourself in a character. Both David Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf are excellent examples of writers who create anxious characters you can relate to, and who help us deal with such emotions.


But more on them in a moment.


There are many soothing qualities in reading books with anxious characters. Such reads help with issues you’re dealing with by making you realize that what may feel like a “you” problem is actually a universal affliction. Writer James Baldwin once said:


“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”  


A great work of fiction will be a study of character: a meditation on what it is to be human. Virginia Woolf’s novels rarely have a clear-cut plot but deal with anxious or depressed characters. As we read these character’s thoughts, we relate because the emotions seem so real. For many, anxiety plays a huge part of our lives, yet reading about these characters provides us with a community, when normally we feel isolated. 

Soothing reads

GIF courtesy of Giphy

Instead of providing an escape, such fiction allows you, and maybe even forces you, to confront the struggles of life. For example, in The Pale King, David Foster Wallace describes a character sweating in a classroom and the self-conscious thoughts that swarm his mind:

“Or it [sweat] also happened at any crowded function like Scout meetings or Christmas dinner in the stuffy, overheated dining room of his grandparents’ home in Rockton, where he could literally feel the table’s candles’ extra little dots of heat and the body heat of all the relatives crowded around the table, with his head down trying to look like he was studying his plate’s china pattern as the heat of the fear of the heat spread through him like adrenaline or brandy, that physical spread of internal heat that he tried so hard not to dread.”


How many times have you become nervous that everyone is staring at you? The accuracy of which Wallace describes this feeling is uncanny.


Wallace’s example is extremely relatable – at some point, everyone has had the anxious thought of being embarrassed in a crowd. You cannot control anxiety and once it starts, it only escalates the problem. In this passage, the people surrounding the nervous character likely do not notice his sweating, but his mind is in panic mode, imagining the worst situation.


Although we may think about these things often, we rarely speak about our anxiety, often assuming we are alone in our struggles.  Wallace makes us address this part of our life, making the reader feel connected to the author and character. 


This also gives us a fresh perspective of what is really going on when we experience these panic attacks. Our brains are tricking us and making us fear the worst while nothing is even amiss.


Reading about anxiety episodes from authors we dearly admire can also inspire us as our idols were able to create and be productive despite working from a place of suffering. Anxiety may be a part of our life, but it does not define us and we can still rise to the highest stage.


Feature image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.