Book and Brew takeover, Life, Reading and literacy

Reading to relieve stress

On today’s Book and Brew takeover, Julie Swain talks about how she reads to relieve stress, and why hiding in a good book can make everything seem better.

Let’s take a look.


Julie Swain
Julie Swain

Throughout our lives, books will mean different things to us.  As a child, books help us to develop language skills and teach us about the world.  Throughout school, we will continue to develop those skills, but some of us will begin to see the joy of reading through our studies of English literature.  For those of us lucky enough to get to University, the dreaded textbook will bring a whole different meaning to the word “book”!  Eventually, however, books will hopefully become all about reading for pleasure.

I’ve always been a big reader, but since deciding, roughly three years ago, never to set foot in a University again (after spending a total of 10 years of my life  in one!), I have finally got around to reading for sheer enjoyment.  I’m never seen without a book; everyone who knows me, knows I love to read. Over the last year or so, however, books have taken on a whole new meaning for me; a relationship with books that I’ve never had in my previous 39 years.

The day – and night – job

So, let me give you a bit of background. For the last seven years, I’ve been an emergency ambulance paramedic (and still am), so if you ever have the misfortune to call 999, you might find me on your doorstep. During a shift, I can be called to a birth, a death, and every variation of a medical emergency you can imagine in between. I have to be able to deal with any or all of those situations whether it’s 3pm or 3am; whether I’ve been on shift for 10 minutes, or 10 hours; whether I’ve eaten or not; and whether I’m in a nice cosy house or in the middle of a winter road.

I take whichever book I’m reading at the time to work with me, and leave it on the ambulance during my shift. Chances are I won’t get time to read it. If I’m lucky, I may get 20 minutes at the end of my 45 minute meal break (my one and only break during my 12-hour shift) to have a quick escape from reality.  I know that, in those pages, there is a whole other world of escapism, adventure, romance maybe? Who knows until we dive in?

The ambulance service is no different to the rest of the NHS. Increasing demand for services, a lack of qualified staff, insufficient funding etc, all add to the pressure on those who still work within it. I’ve become very disillusioned in my job for the last year in particular. Although the role can be extremely rewarding, dealing with patients under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, long and unsocial hours, and constantly finishing late, has brought my morale to an all time low. Whilst on shift, I do my absolute best for every single patient I meet, and for their families, carers and friends. Once at home, however, the stress of the day can become overwhelming and on several occasions, I have returned home in tears.

Emotional strain

Over recent months, I’ve faced some particularly tough times at work. The continuing exhaustion brought on by 12-hour shifts, and what seemed like an influx of physical violence towards me, began to take its toll. On top of this, just coping with the emotional strain of some of the situations in which we, as paramedics, find ourselves, can be hard to bear. I have therefore begun to find solace in books. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that books have taken over my life!

As a keen runner and (some would say) gym freak, exercise is my physical release of tension from work. But I need something else to deal with the emotional and psychological tensions, and that’s where books come in. They help me to relax, they help me to overcome my emotions, and they help me to see that, despite everything we see and hear, there is beauty in this world, if only you know where to find it. I now spend almost the entirety of my days off either reading or running (thankfully, mainly the former!).

My favourite book is The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent. I came across this book very much by chance whilst browsing in a bookshop.  It was a great find as it’s the only book I’ve read that has ever made me cry (and whilst writing, I’m now amending this to the first book that made me cry, as Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love just did too)! I recommend The Reader on the 6.27 to everyone as its pages are truly magical; Didierlaurent is such a gifted writer. It’s also the only book I’ve ever read more than once, because it reminds me, when I’m having a bad day, that difficult times can be eased by love.

I’m a very philosophical person, so I really enjoy books that make me think. One book that did just that was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. A rare book of such emotive quality, and even more so when you discover what Faber was going through when he wrote it. This book made me realise that writing, as well as reading, can be a way of dealing with pain. I am over the moon to have tickets to see Michel Faber at the York Literature Festival in March!

I also absolutely loved The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This truly is the kind of book that takes me away from the world; a wonderfully descriptive book allowing you to be fully submerged in its pages.

Books as comfort

I could go on about the books I’ve read, and what they have meant to me, but the main point I want to get across is how books can help to cope with stress. They can take you to a far away kingdom; you can travel the world through their pages; you can meet some amazing people; and some not so! Obviously, not all books are magical and beautiful and end in happiness. Some are about loss and grief and devastation, but even they can have a positive impact. I was recently sent a proof of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist, which is a true story about the loss of Tom’s wife. What you see in a book like that is strength, and resolve, and how we, as human beings, are capable of getting through such utter tragedy. Reading books like this can help put life back into perspective.

My love of books has therefore given me a new focus, and is helping me to deal with the everyday stresses of my current job. I’ve started going to a book club, and now, not only do I relieve my tensions by reading, but also by discussing my love of books with others. I really didn’t think that there were others who were so like me, whose houses were full of unread books because they can’t pass a bookshop without going in, or buying a book based on a great recommendation even though you’ve already got 30 to read! The main thing though is that I’ve made some great new friends.

I’ve also volunteered at my local library to run a children’s book club. Reading can bring such joy to children (as it does to adults) and I believe it is important to pass on our passions to others, especially the younger generations. Books can be a great source of stress relief for children, and can help them deal with grief and emotion, as books are doing for me now.

Books act, for me, as a comfort; a different world I can turn to when I need to get away from the world in which we live. Books just make me smile and, right now, that’s very much the kind of stress relief I need.


Well, that was an emotional and inspiring read. Thanks for being so honest, Julie, and sharing your thoughts on reading to relieve stress.

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