How I Used Reading to Cope with Trauma
For most of my childhood, I used reading to cope with trauma. This might not sound like a bad thing, and it wasn't entirely, but it came with a couple of big problems. Coping mechanisms develop as a way for us to protect ourselves, to survive despite threats to our wellbeing or identity. However, these coping mechanisms can get in the way of real connection.
Reading to Cope with Trauma: The Good and the Bad
As a child, I was living in an environment where I was consistently invalidated, gaslit, and belittled, and as a result, I developed a lot of coping mechanisms to protect me from feeling the crushing weight of all that emotional pain. Some of my biggest coping mechanisms as a child were maladaptive daydreaming, emotional hypervigilance, and reading. I know, reading sounds like a good thing, and in many ways, it was. All of these coping mechanisms were good to some extent because they protected me.
In my daydream world, I could save the day. I had agency, and people cared about me the way I needed them to. Being hypervigilant of others' emotions helped keep me out of trouble, or at least see trouble coming. And reading gave me an escape, allowed me to enter another world where even I didn't exist, let alone all my problems. It was amazing.
But it also numbed me to my real life. That was its purpose, really, and even though it was a good thing in some ways, it was very bad in others. It numbed me to the pain of the constant invalidation, but it also numbed me to friendship and fun. I struggled to connect to real people the way I could connect to characters, and I often felt like I wasn't doing anything with my life. I felt like if someone wrote a book about me, it would be incredibly boring.
Why I Don't Need Reading to Cope with Trauma Anymore
I read constantly growing up, but once I left my childhood environment, the books went away. I thought it was because I was in college and doing so much other reading for my classes, but looking back, I don't think that was it. I think once I was out of that bad environment, I no longer needed books as an escape.
Reading started as a very good way to give my brain a break from the constant small traumas in my daily life, but it was no longer necessary to protect myself once I was in a better environment. In many ways, this was a blessing. I made some very good friends in college, in no small part because my nose wasn't always in a book. I made time to talk to people, to connect with them, and that was wonderful.
But sometimes, part of me really misses how I used to be able to lose myself in a story all day, every day. I miss that immersion, and I miss my identity as a bookworm. However, I also know that my real identity was a trauma victim, and the books were merely a symptom. Slowly, I'm actually starting to read again, for fun this time, rather than for survival.
What about you? Did you read voraciously as a child, and looking back, you can see it was in response to trauma? Do you miss the constant reading now, or are you still a big reader? Let me know in the comments below.
Griffith, M. (2020, December 29). How I Used Reading to Cope with Trauma, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, September 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/recoveringfrommentalillness/2020/12/how-i-used-reading-to-cope-with-trauma
Author: Megan Griffith
I realized a few years ago that I had been emotionally abused by my mother for 20 years. I had no clue I was being abused growing up, it was all just normal. I didn’t read as a child, but from the moment I had my a-ha moment I began reading like my life depended on it. I’d finish a 400+ page book every 2 days. Only now did I make the connection that it may have been a trauma response… a way to not think about the horribleness I had been through. I’ve slowed down my reading this past year, but it is still a very enjoyable part of my life. Especially re-reading my favorite novels. As far as trauma responses and coping mechanisms go, I’m glad reading was one of my defaults and not something more toxic. I really appreciate your article and talking about something most people don’t even realize is a thing (reading as a trauma response.)
Hi there, Katy. Seeing reading as a trauma response definitely isn't a super common thing, but it makes sense for sure! It's got me wondering as well since I also did (and still do) devour books like there's no tomorrow. I'm glad to hear that you still enjoy reading despite how it might be linked to a trauma response. :) It's still something I enjoy, too.
Hi, I found this from googling the very same experience. I grew up and read like crazy to escape, realized it because of a trauma response TikTok where I just want to run away. Got to thinking the ways I did run away were mostly into books. Ever since I moved out of my parents house three years ago and then out of my sister’s house and in with my BF my drive to read dropped off a cliff. I feel safe with him in a way I’ve never felt before. He has been helping me heal past trauma and with it I have become so much more aware of just how my life before was all about survival. I unfortunately didn’t get to move out of my family’s toxic environment until I was 29 (driving anxiety from getting hit by a truck meant I didn’t even have a license till 27). But would be interesting to talk with someone else with the same trauma response experience.