Stress builds up tension during crazy times and has become a common symptom for all positive and negative COVID-19 people.

During the past thousands of years, people have dealt with two kinds of stress — good and bad. The good can build energy and goals by meeting challenges and motivating us. Lousy stress runs life over with confusion, anxiety, misery and difficult times to the point of depression and distress, especially throughout 2020. But what does the holiday season have to do with it?

Among many ways to deal with stress attacking a healthy body is to eat nourishing food, have daily exercise and get plenty of sleep.

The other critical effort is to keep our minds sharp and functioning by talking with friends, listening to music and/or using humor when possible. To maintain an energetic and focused brain is to read good books. Doing so provides stress reduction.

As Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet and dramatist author, said in the beginning of the 17th century, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” The quote applies even more this year.

Reading a book exercises and enriches our minds. Watching television or a movie does not elicit the same depth of response. When a scene takes over on the screen, our minds and memory banks are less active bringing up personal versions of the pictures and understanding the stories.

When reading a printed page, however, memory connectors build and create more detailed and meaningful scenes. Such strong brain activity improves relief from stress.

Reading also reduces physical stress by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and it calms the mind. A study at the University of Sussex in 2009 reports how stress is reduced up to 68% just by reading.

Within six minutes of reading, overall health can improve and prevent potential stress conditions. Reading activates imagination and creativity, resulting in a clearer mind.

Dr. Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins University has written how our brains and memories work in his book, “Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life.”

Each of us has a highly complicated human brain with billions of memory connections. The difference between the brain and a computer is that computers store facts as isolated bits of information. Our minds not only store facts, but connect them into important networks. These connectors make us more than just machines.

When a memory is triggered, it sets off a series of the connectors, which bring in other memories to complete our memory image. For instance, if we read the words “chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk,” each of us will do an incredible journey through our minds to pull together a picture.

For some, that may trigger a scene of our childhood sitting in the backyard eating cookies with our mother nearby. For others, the brain might form an image of the kitchen where we bake those cookies — or the need to diet.

Because memories can be emotionally loaded, some imagined pictures are quite intense. The talent of the writer lies in his or her ability to choose the right image, the perfect clue, to set off the reader’s memory network and get an emotional wallop, too.

It takes amazingly little time for all of this to happen — half a second for the instant recognition of a word or a set of words. The mind needs only slightly longer to pull together more detailed memories when other regions of the brain are asked to elicit information that may help.

A tough question is, why don’t we allow ourselves more time to read? If we walk past a lawyer’s office or a teacher’s office or any leader in the community and see them reading a book, our first reaction might be, “They don’t have enough to do!”

Yet, we admire leaders who get out and exercise. We don’t put reading in the same category. The excuse of not enough time falls short.

“We want everything fast — fast food, eyeglasses in an hour, drive-through banking,” says Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University. “Internally, we feel rushed. And the more rushed someone feels, the more they feel pressed for time. … People constantly underestimate their free time and overestimate their work hours. They’re in denial.”

Ironically, more than half of American adults want to be given books during the holiday season. In an American Booksellers of America survey a few years ago, 51% of readers said they would like to receive a book while only 15% said they had absolutely no interest in it. The most frequently asked-for books were mysteries or suspense and current fiction. Biographies, cooking/wine and science or fantasy fiction made up the next categories.

My favorite way to step back from stress is to engage in a good novel or well-written nonfiction. Just 20 minutes of reading pulls me back and then releases me into real life with more energy and ability to focus. Above all, reading makes life richer and more worthy.

Choosing a book for a gift during the holidays can be poignant and not all that expensive. Such a gift will ease stress and add pleasure for many hours beyond Christmas.

One more thought: Treat yourself to this special gift, too.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.