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Is there anything cozier than curling up on the couch with a good book and getting lost in other lives and worlds?
Whether you love to read for some healthy escapism, to gain new insights or to learn interesting facts, reading can enrich your life in many ways, especially if you’re stuck at home with chronic illness. And yet, ‘go read a book’ is easier said than done when you struggle with poor memory, lack of focus or brain fog.
Brain fog isn’t an official medical term, but people with all kinds of chronic illness use it to describe that feeling of walking with your head in the clouds. Your brain’s foggy and sluggish, and as a result, you get easily distracted and overwhelmed by simple everyday tasks. Even getting all the groceries on your list in a busy supermarket or navigating traffic can be challenging when you’re forgetful and lack mental clarity.
Most of us have experienced a mild form of brain fog after a few sleepless night and during stressful periods, but more troubling cognitive impairment can accompany several health problems, from infections and concussions to ME/CFS, long COVID, chronic Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis.
Brain fog and other cognitive problems, like poor attention span, can make it hard to read longer-form text. Letters could be dancing when you try to read a sentence, or you can see the words clearly but the letters don’t seem to have any meaning. Maybe you have trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or it all feels mentally overwhelming and confusing.
And it’s not just about reading for pleasure – it can also be hard to encipher the prescriptions of your new meds, to fill in medical or tax forms, or to comprehend important work documents.
So what can you do to get back to reading with brain fog and other cognitive problems?
Sadly, there are no miracle cures. But hopefully these tips can help you to gradually rebuild your reading stamina.
1. Choose the right medium for right now.
I love paper books myself, but there are several benefits to downloading eBooks to your tablet or using an eReader like Kobo or Kindle when you’re chronically ill. You can adjust the font, size and spacing of the letters, as well as the brightness and the warmth of the lighting. What’s more, eReaders can be easier to hold, carry and flick the pages if you struggle with arthritis or poor grip strength. Plus, you don’t have to visit the library or bookstore to get new books, which makes all the difference when you’re stuck in bed with chronic illness.
All of these digital aspects can have a positive impact on your reading experiencing. But for some people, staring at screens for too long triggers or intensifies health problems like migraine, brain fog, blurred vision and insomnia.
Research has also consistently shown that readers retain more information from a physical book than from digital content. That’s partly because actually holding a book in your hands helps your brain map information to a particular page, which improves your recall of details. What also plays a role is that, compared to paper, screens take up more of our mental resources, leaving less space for remembering what we’ve just read. Also, we’re so used to skimming social media sound bites on our phone, that our brains will automatically devote less mental effort to reading from screens, even when it does involve long-form texts. And of course it doesn’t help that reading on your phone or tablet makes it very tempting to get distracted by other apps competing for your attention.
Audiobooks have also become more and more popular over the years. Listening to stories can be a great way to pass the time when you’re sick in bed, to motivate yourself during walks or chores that challenge you physically, or to soak up helpful knowledge. Especially when you struggle with visual problems or prefer auditive learning, mentally painting a picture through your ears instead of your eyes is a good option. However, most of this article will focus on rebuilding your visual reading stamina, so you can also tackle important written letters, forms and instructions again.
Every medium has its ups and downs, so explore what’s the right way to read for you right now depending on your wants, needs and limitations.
2. Pick good content.
No matter how enthusiastic you might be to get back into reading books despite brain fog and other health problems, it’s best not to start with ‘War and Peace’, or other really big books with complex language and story lines. Here are some ideas on how to pick the right kind of book for you, content-wise.
* Go Short
Just like you shouldn’t sign up for a marathon if you’ve just started running, you don’t want to dive into 500 page novels when you’re getting back into reading long-form texts again. When you can see you can finish your book in a few sittings, you’re more likely to pick up your book and quickly increase your confidence too.
Thankfully, you can find plenty of enjoyable short books coming in under 250 pages. From an old-school mystery like ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie to the classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ or the spiritual bestseller ‘The Alchemist’, there’s a short read for everyone’s taste.
But if an entire book, even a short one, feels too overwhelming, why not pick up a collection of short stories? For tiny tales of exactly 900 words that explore some of life’s biggest questions, check out ‘And Other Stories’ by Adam Stones. Other highly appraised short stories are ‘To Be a Man‘ by Nicole Krauss, ‘Grand Union’ by Zadie Smith and ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You might also like reading one beautiful poem a day, like ‘Milk and Honey’ from Rupi Kaur or ‘Call Us What We Carry’ by Amanda Gorman.
Having a clear beginning and ending of your reading sessions can help you feel accomplished when you’re building up your reading stamina from scratch.
* Watch for Easy Language
Working your way through long sentences with complicated words may not be the right choice for you when you’re dealing with poor focus and memory. One way to get back into reading with brain fog is by choosing books with language that’s easier to understand.
For many of us, contemporary fiction is probably easier to understand than Dickens, Austen of Proust. But if you’re a struggling reader, you might want to google ‘Hi-Lo Books for Adults’. ‘Hi-Lo” stands for ‘High interest, low readability’, meaning books with a simple vocabulary and syntax, short chapters and gripping story lines.
Also, don’t dismiss young adult literature. Sure, YA novels are typically coming-of-age stories written with teens in mind, but this genre has become highly popular, even among adult readers, for a reason. A good story is a good story, and books like ‘The Hate U Give’, ‘We Were Liars’, and ‘The Sun is Also a Star’ prove that point.
It’s perfectly ok to start with easy reads and slowly work your way up to the reading level you had before you got sick (or simply enjoy the simpler books you’re reading now!).
* Get a Genre that Excites You.
If you really want to get back into reading, it shouldn’t feel like a chore, even if brain fog makes it challenging. You want to choose a genre that excites you, a story that pulls you in, a book that makes you forget about Netflix and Instagram and all the other things you could be doing.
So try to uncover what it is you love about reading. Do you like to learn new interesting facts or gain powerful insights? Are you looking for a mental escape from everyday life or do you prefer a storyline and characters you really relate to? Do you long for a thrill, sense of adventure or a dazzling romance?
There’s a genre for every mood. And let’s ditch the snobbery at this stage – it’s perfectly ok to dive into a fun chick lit or airport thriller, even if you normally prefer more literary work.
* Don’t Overlook Illustrated Editions.
Think picture books are for small kids? Think again.
Even writers of dense, serious nonfiction, like Yuval Noah Harari and Bill Bryson, have released illustrated, easier-to-read versions of their bestselling books, Unstoppable Us and A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. And timeless tales like ‘The Little Prince’ and ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ are both thought-provoking stories and beautiful works of art.
Do the letters keep dancing on the page when you try to read? Grab some funny comic books or get yourself a coffee table book with interesting photography and texts.
3. Gradually rebuild your attention span and memory.
When you try to get back into reading with brain fog and other cognitive problems, it’s key to create the right conditions for your brain to function optimally. Do not open your book right before bedtime if your mental energy is already drained for that day’s tasks. Instead, pick up your reading habit on the times of day when you’re most likely to feel alert and focused.
It also helps to sit down in a comfortable chair in a quiet space where you can limit distractions. We all know it’s hard to get captivated by a story when we’re interrupted by our kids, colleagues, pets or pinging phones. So turn off your notifications and let the people around you know not to disturb you for 10 to 20 minutes.
To support your attention span, you could mouth the words as you read or even read out loud. Use a ruler to only reveal one line of text at a time if you tend to skip words, or keep track of where you are with your finger.
You could even boost your focus and understanding by listening to the audiobook while reading the same paper/digital book. That strategy might also stop you from getting frustrated when you want to finish the story but can’t continue to visually read. I haven’t used it, but apparently Amazon’s Whispersync feature allows you to go back and forth between audio and text without losing the spot you left off.
Do you struggle to remember all the characters names and relations, or other important facts? Some people find it helpful to use post-its as book markers with that kind of relevant information on them. Another trick to get back into reading despite your memory problems is to read novels of which you’ve already seen the movie, like the Hunger Games series, Life of Pi or Gone Girl. Knowing the general storyline and players involved can make it easier to enjoy the writing.
If you’re reading nonfiction for comprehension and memorization, you can highlight and underline key passages. Smart pens like the Livescribe pen can also help you take notes by recording everything you hear, say and write.
None of these tips can solve your cognitive problems, but just like a physical workout strengthens your muscles, this mental exercise can slowly improve your reading stamina over time.
4. Create a reading routine you can stick to.
The only way to finish most books is to read one or many pages in multiple sittings. And that means you need to create a regular reading routines that you can actually stick to. Here’s how:
First of all, having a clear motivation why you want to build a reading routine makes it easier to stick to habits in the longer run. Maybe you need to be able to rebuild your reading stamina for the study or job of your dreams. Perhaps you’d love to read bedtime stories to your kids every night, or you just really miss getting lost in a good book for pleasure.
The second rule to creating any healthy habit is starting small. You might be all fired up to tackle great literature every day, but start with easy reads for a few moments a day. Stop reading before you get too mentally drained. And don’t dive into other mentally-demanding tasks straight after reading, but take some real rest instead, or do something more physical.
Thirdly, you’re more likely to stick to your reading routine if you have (visual) reminders around you. Place books on the (coffee) able or by your bedside. Swap your screen saver for a photo of the book you’re currently reading. You could even treat yourself to this cute To Be Read tote from Modern Mrs. Darcy for your library books.
To stay motivated, you could listen to book-related podcasts, like What Should I Be Reading Next? or Read Aloud Revival. Keep the momentum going by tracking your reading adventures in a beautiful journal and making a ‘To Be Read’ List. (Online) book clubs are also great to help you stick to your reading routines, but only if you think you can keep up the pace. The last thing you’d want is to feel guilty about not finishing your book in time for the next meeting because your pain, fatigue or brain fog played up.
Getting back into a reading routine can be pretty challenging when you’re struggling with chronic illness. But by starting small and choosing the right books in the right medium for you, you can slowly rebuild your focus and memory over time.
What’s helped you to read books despite brain fog and other health problems?
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Bibliotherapy: How Reading Can Make You Feel Better and Armchair Journey: 9 Travel Memoirs for a Mental Escape.