How to Unhook From the Pain in Life
I donâ€™t feel good today.
I have lived with depression for many years now and today is not a good day. What I want to do is go back to bed, curl up in a ball, and read something riveting like The Hunger Games.
Anything to take my mind off of how I feel and what that mind is telling me. (I just realized how funny that is: I want to take my mind off of my mind!)
The worst part of depression for me is often what goes on in my head. My inner voice comes up with some doozies:
- â€œWhat is wrong with you? Everything is fine in your life and yet youâ€™re depressed. What a loser.â€
- â€œOh, great. Yet another day where youâ€™re not going to get anything done. You are so lazy.â€
- â€œIf people really knew how you are, they wouldnâ€™t believe a word you said.â€
- â€œYou suck.â€
After awhile, I get hooked into these thoughts and I feel even worse.
Let me guess. Youâ€™ve had experiences similar to this. You might not get depressed, but maybe you get anxious or worried. Or perhaps you feel scattered, undisciplined, and unfocused. Or maybe life is just hard right now for any number of reasons.
And your inner voice lets you have it, too, and pretty soon youâ€™re hooked. Not very comfortable, is it?
Resistance Is Futile
What have you done to deal with what your head tells you?
Iâ€™ve tried actually going to bed, curling up in a ball, and reading The Hunger Games. That works pretty well. Until I stop reading.
Iâ€™ve also tried replacing my negative thoughts with positive ones.
- â€œThereâ€™s nothing wrong with you. You are a bright, capable person.â€
- â€œPeople love me even when they find out I get depressed.â€
This doesnâ€™t work at all for me. Itâ€™s the same way with affirmations. They just make me feel worse.
I bet all of this sounds familiar to you, too. You probably even have other methods you use to try to make all of these thoughts and feelings go away.
Like me, you may have discovered that the things you try to get rid of difficult thoughts and feelings donâ€™t tend to work very well. Resisting them, avoiding them, trying to trick them â€“ itâ€™s not working, is it?
Thatâ€™s because resistance actually tends to magnify the effect of the painful thoughts and feelings rather than reducing them or getting rid of them like weâ€™re trying to do.
What do we do when weâ€™re having bad days like Iâ€™m having today, when weâ€™re really hooked into our thoughts and feelings?
Do this little exercise with me: Place your hands palms up so that the pinky sides of your hands are touching. Now bring your hands up to your face so that they are half an inch away from your nose.
What can you see? You can see tiny bits of light through the small cracks between your fingers and you can see some fuzzy objects from your peripheral vision.
Now imagine that Iâ€™m sitting across from you with your hands still in this position. How well can we interact? You can hear me, but do you feel connected to me? Can you see my facial expressions and body language?
Finally, with your hands stuck in this position, can you function very well? Can you drive a car, use a computer, or give someone a hug?
Now what do we do? Since our hands are a part of us, we know we canâ€™t get rid of them. So we need to get them away from our nose, we need to get more space so we can see whatâ€™s going on around us and be able to interact with the world.
Now lower your hands slowly away from your face. Notice how more things are coming into your view. As your hands approach your lap, let them separate and rest comfortably on your legs. Your hands are now free to drive a car, use a computer, and give someone a hug. And you can see me and everything else in front of you.
Your hands represent your thoughts and feelings when you are hooked into them. When your hands were in front of your nose, they symbolized how you become so absorbed in your internal experience that you canâ€™t connect very well with others, see whatâ€™s going on in the world around you, or function very well.
So, how do we lower our hands â€“ unhook from our thoughts and feelings?
We notice and allow.
Our goal in unhooking from our thoughts and feelings is to be mindful. Simply put, mindfulness is being aware of our present experience without judgment.
So, when our mind produces thoughts that are distressing for us, we just notice them. Thatâ€™s all. We donâ€™t add anything else onto them or judge them in any way.
For example, today when my mind created the thought, â€œWhat is wrong with you? Everything is fine in your life and yet youâ€™re depressed. What a loser,â€ I could have continued on with any number of responses like:
- â€œI shouldnâ€™t be having this thought. Itâ€™s not good for me.â€
- â€œI really am a loser.â€
- â€œI hate it when I think these things!â€
But those thoughts are just resisting the initial thought! My efforts to get rid of the painful thought would just result in more pain. It would be as if I brought my hands closer to my face instead of allowing them to move away.
So, instead, I just noticed the thought. I said to myself, â€œOh, thereâ€™s that thought that Iâ€™m a loser again.â€
And that was it.
No judgment about the thought, no fighting against it, no avoiding it. Just noticing it and allowing it to go by like a leaf floating down a stream.
And, as I noticed each thought, I could feel myself getting unhooked from them.
Instead of resisting my depressed mood or trying to get rid of it â€“ actions that just hook me into it even more â€“ I did the opposite: I created space around it and gave it permission to be there.
For me, itâ€™s helpful to close my eyes and get in touch with where I feel depression in my body, an area right under my sternum. I breathe into this area and imagine expanding the space around my depression, allowing it to be there for as long as it wants, and accepting it as a part of myself.
So, rather than being hooked into my depression by grappling and struggling with it, I accept it as it is. This is akin to letting my hands float away from my face, opening up my ability to live a more engaged, meaningful life.
Now, letâ€™s go back to our hands-to-face analogy. I want you to notice something: Even when we allow our hands to gently move all the way onto our legs, theyâ€™re still there. We havenâ€™t gotten rid of our hands, have we?
So, you might have been wondering as Iâ€™ve been talking about my own experience with depression, â€œYes, sheâ€™s noticing and allowing, but is that making her feel better? Has her depression gone away?â€
No, it hasnâ€™t. I still donâ€™t feel very good today.
But Iâ€™m not hooked into how I feel. Iâ€™m not absorbed with the thoughts my mind has learned to create over the years. I have space around my thoughts and feelings as I simply allow them to be there.
And this space lets me continue on about my day even though Iâ€™m not feeling my best. But Iâ€™m not using up all of my energy fighting myself or trying to resist the natural ebb and flow of life.
I can connect with other people in my life, engage with the world around me, and function just fine as I allow for my own painful inner experience instead of waiting until I feel better.
Just noticing and allowing is a practice and one I strongly encourage you to try. Itâ€™s likely that you will find a sense of peace as you let go of resisting and fighting and unhook yourself from the doozies your mind comes up with.
Note: The ideas in this post are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If youâ€™d like to learn more, I recommend The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living by Russ Harris.
Photo by Ansel Edwards Photography