Experiencing a book hangover
Picture this: You’ve just reached the last page of one of the best books you’ve ever read. It’s time to scrounge up something for dinner, but you find yourself staring into space, fighting back tears. The two flames whose love story made your heart ache, or the vibrant fantasy world where you rooted for new friends to overcome evil against all odds? Well, now they’re only alive in your mind. If you’ve ever wondered how to move on with ordinary life after a great book, you’re not alone – you’re experiencing a book hangover.
Book hangovers feel different for everyone. Do you have a hard time letting go and moving on with your day after reading sad books or feel-good books? That’s a book hangover. Are you still daydreaming about living in your favourite fictional world days after finishing the novel? Book hangover!
Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, and it’s closely tied to the benefits of reading (and the importance of reading!). To find out what’s going on in our brains, we talked to two clinical psychologists: Renee Solomon, PsyD, the CEO of Forward Recovery, and Kristen Roye, PsyD, the vice president of clinical operations at Destinations for Teens.
OK, but are book hangovers actually real?
“Book hangover” isn’t an official term, but the experience is very real. Many avid readers report feeling a little blue after finishing a great book.
“We get very sad when a book ends,” says Solomon. “It is as though we are losing our world and the characters in it.”
Making the loss even more painful is the fact that the fictional world and its made-up characters are often better than our ho-hum reality. “Sometimes real life simply cannot match the emotions and adventures that a novel can,” says Roye. “It may take our brains some time to adjust.”
Feeling blue about the doldrums of daily life after an exciting book is kind of like a mental or emotional hangover. Maybe you feel depressed about leaving the world of a romantic beach read. Or maybe you feel numb and bored with your life after experiencing the thrill of high-speed chases and espionage in your favourite mystery or thriller.
The science of a book hangover
So, what’s the psychology behind this curious phenomenon? Well, there are a few factors at play.
You’re sad that it’s over
First things first: You might just be sad that the book is over. One minute, you’re on the edge of your seat, racing through chapters at 2am to discover whether your new friends will plummet to their deaths, solve the crime or get their happy ever after. The next, you’re staring down the day’s to-dos, and the prospect of filing your taxes doesn’t give you the same thrill. (Or any thrill.)
Ending a great book is like completing a fantastic movie or holiday. It’s normal to feel a bit blue that the good times are over.
You’re jolted back to reality
It doesn’t take sci-fi or fantasy to flee the tethers of the real world. Any book genre can offer an escape to the right reader.
“Reading allows us to enter another world,” explains Solomon. “We can also enter and leave this world as we choose, which creates a freedom that we don’t have in our real world.”
In other words, reading puts you in the driver’s seat. You can put the book down if the plot makes you tense or pick it up again if you want to escape real life for a few minutes. Losing this control – and losing your new world simultaneously – might make you feel lost and out of sorts.
You’re emotionally spent
To understand a book hangover, it helps to know what goes on in your brain when you read a great book. Why do mere words on a page make us laugh or ugly-cry, for instance?
“As we read, our brains experience what the characters are experiencing,” explains Roye. That means getting lost in the hero’s high-speed chase will make your adrenaline spike too. And if your favourite character is falling in love? “You guessed it,” she says. “Your brain will think it’s also experiencing the feelings and emotions associated with love.”
Feeling what the characters feel is what makes reading so wonderful. But getting emotionally engaged with the story can be exhausting, especially when the roller coaster ends and the characters are no longer there to fuel your mind and heart. Unless the book was read aloud, the actual humans in your life didn’t experience these highs and lows with you.
The upside of a book hangover
Book hangovers are no fun, but they’re proof that books of all kinds – fiction and nonfiction, romance and suspense – can make a deep impact. They’re also a sign of emotional intelligence and a chance to flex the empathetic part of your brain.
That’s doubly true for fiction books. Roye says feeling what a character feels can help you develop greater empathy in the real world and, ultimately, become a more emotionally intelligent person.
“We can consider new thoughts and ideas that we may otherwise have written off as unimportant or too different from our own views,” she explains. That’s why diverse reads are so crucial.
Emotional intelligence doesn’t just benefit the people around you either. Solomon suggests that allowing yourself to feel the highs and lows along with your favourite characters is good practice for your own roller coaster of life.
“Reading allows us to experience our feelings on our terms in a safe environment that we enter and exit at will,” she explains. “Reading is an amazing escape.”
How do you get over a book hangover?
A book hangover, like nostalgia, is a bittersweet ache. The pining for a fictional world might last a day or several weeks. Whether you’re stuck on a great vampire book, historical fiction novel or cosy mystery, staying steeped in the feeling for a little longer is OK. But if you’re ready to let go, our experts and a handful of fellow readers have some smart advice for what to do after you finish a book.
Pick up a new book
“I always have another unread book ready to read to cure that previous book hangover,” says reader Lori Ferguson. “Hair of the dog that bit you!”
Carrie Myers agrees. “I try to find another book by the same author, or a book about the same subject, to keep the feeling going,” she says.
In fact, several reader said picking up a new book is their favourite cure for a book hangover. Research shows that reading is great for your mood and brain, so why not dive right back in?