Separate yourself from the stories you tell yourself
Reduce relapses into depression by teaching people to break the link between feeling bad and ruminating.
When I was wandering around grumbling to myself about something the other day, I remembered one of the best pieces of mental health advice I had ever been given: separate what happens to you from the story you tell yourself about what happens to you. As soon as I remembered this, I stopped grumbling, felt better and went on with my day.
That advice is at the heart of therapies that aim to reduce relapses into depression by teaching people to break the link between feeling bad and ruminating about feeling bad.
Ruminating means going over and over something like a cow chewing the cud. As a habit, it does a lot to make us feel more depressed, angry or anxious than we need to be.
Think about being insulted or treated dismissively by somebody. An incident like that is usually over in a matter of seconds. But we have a habit of rerunning the scene again and again, perhaps changing it to make it come out differently.
We tell ourselves the story of the insult hundreds, maybe thousands, of times.
In that way an incident that took a second or two can be kept going for days, months or years in the mind. But if you can separate the incident from the story, you can learn to feel the flash of anger triggered by the memory of the incident but then let it go. How? By staying out of the story and by moving your attention to whatever else is going on around you.
SkillIt’s a skill you can practise and, in my experience, it’s a skill that can save your peace of mind.
You can save yourself a lot of trouble by applying this skill to anxiety. If you’re anxious about how you are going to perform in a meeting at work, for instance, you can always make matters worse by building up the story of what could go wrong.
You can imagine scenarios in which you freeze or babble, or in which your colleagues end up laughing at you. In this way, your feeling of anxiety can be multiplied. Again, if you can learn to feel the physical anxiety without getting into the stories in your head about it, you can at least keep your anxiety within bounds.
I say “physical anxiety” because all emotions have a strong physical side and if you can develop the skill of experiencing the physical side and staying out of the story, the physical feeling will fade away. Of course, if the emotion is strong, it will come back again from time to time, but it will fade more quickly each time you step out of the story.
Rumination is also a major physical contributor to depression. According to Prof Mark Williams, who recently retired from Oxford University, rumination plays a major role, especially in relapse into depression. He believes that after a couple of serious bouts of depression, the brain has learned to link low mood with rumination. Once this link has been established, a low mood – which we all experience – triggers rumination and this gradually converts a mild depression into a serious one. His research is the basis for the NHS recommendation that mindfulness be considered as a treatment for people who have been depressed three or more times. That’s because the practice of mindfulness discourages rumination.
But you don’t necessarily have to do serious mindfulness practice to learn to separate what happens to you from the stories your imagination generates about these negative events. Once you accept the principle of dropping the story, you can gradually develop the skill of bringing your attention back to whatever else you’re doing at the time while waiting for that physical negative sensation to go.
None of this guarantees a trouble-free life, but it can help you to avoid adding extra upset to your inevitable negative experiences. And that’s enough to make it worthwhile to learn to separate what happens to you from the stories you tell yourself about what happens to you.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and is author of Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is available free by email, firstname.lastname@example.org