How to Unhook From the Pain in Life

How to Unhook From the Pain in Life

I don’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:

  • “What is wrong with you? Everything is fine in your life and yet you’re depressed. What a loser.”
  • “Oh, great. Yet another day where you’re not going to get anything done. You are so lazy.”
  • “If people really knew how you are, they wouldn’t believe a word you said.”
  • “You suck.”

After awhile, I get hooked into these thoughts and I feel even worse.

Let me guess. You’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 you’re hooked. Not very comfortable, is it?

Resistance Is Futile

What have you done to deal with what your head tells you?

I’ve tried actually going to bed, curling up in a ball, and reading The Hunger Games. That works pretty well. Until I stop reading.

I’ve also tried replacing my negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • “There’s nothing wrong with you. You are a bright, capable person.”
  • “People love me even when they find out I get depressed.”

This doesn’t work at all for me. It’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 don’t tend to work very well. Resisting them, avoiding them, trying to trick them – it’s not working, is it?

That’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 we’re trying to do.

What do we do when we’re having bad days like I’m having today, when we’re really hooked into our thoughts and feelings?

We unhook.

Getting Unhooked

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 I’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 can’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 what’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 can’t connect very well with others, see what’s going on in the world around you, or function very well.

So, how do we lower our hands – unhook from our thoughts and feelings?

We notice and allow.

Just Notice

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. That’s all. We don’t add anything else onto them or judge them in any way.

For example, today when my mind created the thought, “What is wrong with you? Everything is fine in your life and yet you’re depressed. What a loser,” I could have continued on with any number of responses like:

  • “I shouldn’t be having this thought. It’s not good for me.”
  • “I really am a loser.”
  • “I hate it when I think these things!”

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, “Oh, there’s that thought that I’m a loser again.”

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.

Allow

Instead of resisting my depressed mood or trying to get rid of it – actions that just hook me into it even more – I did the opposite: I created space around it and gave it permission to be there.

For me, it’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, let’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, they’re still there. We haven’t gotten rid of our hands, have we?

So, you might have been wondering as I’ve been talking about my own experience with depression, “Yes, she’s noticing and allowing, but is that making her feel better? Has her depression gone away?”

No, it hasn’t. I still don’t feel very good today.

But I’m not hooked into how I feel. I’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 I’m not feeling my best. But I’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. It’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 you’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

Bobbi Emel

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who helps you bounce back from life’s significant challenges. Download her FREE ebook Bounce Back! 5 ways to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs. You may also want to join her on a journey toward living a richer, more meaningful life on The Bounce Blog.

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46 Comments

  1. I’ve dealt with paranoid schizophrenic thoughts. They were quite likely the result of my childhood as a victim of an extreme cult. We have to face our thoughts, our fears. Otherwise we can’t let them go. I used writing to deal with my own thoughts. I’ve now written two books. “A Train Called Forgiveness” is a fictional account of my childhood and forgiveness journey. “At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy” comes out in about two weeks. Learn more at http://www.danerickson.net. Writing can be great self-therapy.

    Reply
    • You’re right, Dan, writing can be very useful therapy. Many times when my readers write to me, they say, “Wow! I feel better just having written about this!”

      Good luck with your books.

      Reply
  2. I recently went through a deep bout of depression and as I teach others to deal with these sort of issues it was interesting for me to be the ‘one in the chair’. I totally understood I had to take care of myself, no-one else could do it for me, I also understood what worked for me as I am auditory, so I would listen to positive stuff and music I knew lifted me.
    It certainly helped me with understanding what I needed, so I would say first and foremost be selfish, learn to understand yourself, you are different from everyone else and your needs are different also
    The message I got from your post Bobbi, was “find what works for you” – listen to your inner self, listen hard and you will hear.

    Reply
    • Yes, I think it’s important to find what works for you and to learn that we don’t always need to attend to the stuff that is going on in our heads! Thanks for sharing your story, Joan!

      Reply
  3. Hi Bobby,

    Lovely post on dealing with depression using ACT principles.

    I’m a psychiatrist and have trained in combining eastern wisdom with neuroscience. The thought pattern you have so beautifully described is RUMINATION. It is the life force of depression.

    There is a specific mindfulness method called MBCT (Mindfulness based cognitive therapy) that focuses on yhe ruminative thought process of the brain.

    It’s been shown by research to change the brain connections and seems to prevent depression relapse even better than medications can!

    Feel free to check out my website for more info on this: http://www.talk-doctor.com

    Hugs,
    Kavetha

    Reply
    • Thanks for the resource, Kavetha!

      Reply
  4. I practice mindfulness in dealing with my anxiety. It becomes a more effective tool each time I use it. The impact that being mindful has on our thinking process is amazing and definitely needs to be shared. Thanks for sharing your story, Bobbi!

    Reply
    • And thanks for sharing yours, Emily! Mindfulness really allows us to get a realistic handle on our thoughts by allowing us some separation from them. I’m so glad it is helping you with your anxiety!

      Reply
  5. I suffer with panic attacks and lots of anxiety. I also went through a bout of depression because of this. These all tend to occur when I try and do something different in my life i.e. pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

    I guess I am just a worrier. I worry about everything and everyone and am always doing for others, family, friends, people I care about, but never think about what I want or my needs. I am not even sure I know who I am anymore.

    The thoughts and worries “what ifs” going around and around in my head just do not give me any peace. I am constantly thinking what if this or what if that and coming up with the worse case scenarios and I am tired of feeling this way.

    I have decided to take a year off from my job and do some travelling and again I am worrying about whether the money will last or whether or not I am doing the right thing, whether I will have my job at the end of this year or not etc etc. But I know the only way to get over my fears is to face them. Travelling is one fear, meeting someone special is another. I am just going to try and take one day and go with the flow….it won’t stop me worrying, but I am going to try and just relax and have fun.

    Reply
  6. I agree with Dan, writing about life’s ups and downs has been a boon for me, so much so that my first task of the day is journaling the day before. No, it doesn’t change the situation itself, but it does burn the energy out of it. I have done this for so long that I tell everyone, I can’t NOT journal.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing that, David. I like how you use the image of “burning the energy out” of the painful stuff in life. Writing about our experiences is a great way to just notice them.

      Reply
  7. A wise friend said this about painful feelings: don’t fight them, don’t feed them, accept them. What I do is take action by calling a friend or going for a fast walk, which seems to take the terrible thoughts away. Or saying “Thank you, mother. Now get the f*ck out of here”. What I’ve experienced is that the mind is a primitive computer: garbage in, garbage out. It comes down to changing the tape. But there are multiple steps in the process of doing this and the more I do them, the better it gets. And, thank God for anti-depressants, which I’ve been taking most of my life. Without them I wouldn’t be here to challenge the “drunken monkey”, what Buddhists call the chattering mind.

    Reply
    • Anne, your wise friend was right about accepting all feelings – the joyous ones along with the painful ones. And I agree that the mind has its own path many times. I think of it more as a problem-solving machine that doesn’t care how the problem gets solved. But that may include the inner critic going off in really harmful ways so it’s best just to notice it and let it float on by.

      Reply
    • Anne, I’ve often thought of the mind as being a computer..And about changing that tape. My brother tells me that we are biological semi conductors..I guess everyone is wired differently..Maybe if more good, positive thoughts are entered into the computer more good thoughts will come out..Being studying the steps involved in changing the tape..There’s plenty of good info. on the internet which I am now discovering is a great resource for what ails you.. Been watching that monkey mind for a long time, maybe just watching it is the answer and just let it be!

      Reply
  8. I havent found anything that really works for me or my daughter, the meds make it so I can meke it through the day at work but when Im home not even meds can get me focused and happy. ITS a good thought and probably works for some but Ill have to keep reading to find my nitche. Thank you anyway

    Reply
    • Good luck, Mary! You might find the book, “The Happiness Trap” helpful.

      Reply
  9. Thanks, Bobbi … it helps me to remember that feelings aren’t facts: i.e., just because I feel like garbage doesn’t mean I am garbage. But when major depression hits I loose the ability to remember that or anything else positive. For me that’s the difference between everyday screwed up person self-sabotaging thoughts major depression. “Depression think” over-rides everything and all I can do is shout for help.

    Reply
  10. Thank you, Bobbi- as always. I keep trying to find ways to”deal”; there are just so many options out there. I like the one response- I am auditory; how does one know their best way to be receptive? I feel like everything thing is a struggle, okay, not really, but why does everything seem so hard all of the time? Why can’t I just let it go? I’m not even sure what it is that I need to let go of either. I seem to resist everything I’ve tried, you name it, I’ve probably done it, with the exception of a lobotomy! Hey, maybe I should try that! Anyway, I do realize that a lot of people have had horrible childhoods and my neuron receptors probably shut down a long time ago and I’m so overloaded with the internet’s offerings, so many books, and yet- we are ALL different. It also would have been nice to know about all of these options a long time ago……rambling, yes, but one size does not fit all. I have tried anti-depressants, do not work for me, really don’t like messing with Mother Nature, have never done drugs (several of my therapists are surprised by that), have pretty much stopped drinking altogether….. And if I buy one more friggin’ book I’ll need to open a library! So, I guess I’ll just have to do one thing at a time and get rid of this weight I have been carrying around for the last 5-6 years first- I did manage to quit smoking, too! Wow, sorry for all that- not sure where that was going. I do like the notice and allow- very much. Thank you Bobbi

    Reply
    • Hi Nicole,

      Like most of us, you’re looking for a “cure” for how you feel and this approach does not promise that. It’s more about learning to live our most valued lifestyle in spite of the pain that life brings us.

      Reply
  11. Hi Bobbi,

    I fully agree with this approach. It reminds me of Aikido, which is a martial art in which you don’t oppose force to force. You fully absorb the force directed at you and only in the second stage you smoothly manage it in the direction you want, in order to preserve harmony.

    I do something similar when I deal with pain. In the first stage I fully allow myself to feel it. Later-on I try to do something to shift my mood. Not to deny the current one, but to evolve it into something more positive. :)

    Cheers,
    Cornelius

    Reply
    • Hi Cornelius,

      Oh, that’s a perfect metaphor! Thanks so much for telling me about Aikido. The approach I wrote about is very much like that: accepting what comes at you and learning to re-direct by letting go and staying present.

      Thanks!

      Reply
  12. What a fantastic and timely post.

    I’m just gone though a breakup and have sporadically abused alcohol for some time. I’ve been having black outs through drinking to excess and got myself in to some trouble either being inappropriate or missing important work through hangovers.

    I appreciate this is a mask and I’m aware I own a worthy higher self and have a great connection to people and animals. The guilt is often worse than my depressive episodes and internally I scream abuse at myself for my stupidity and failure to stop yet another repeat performance.

    I’m going to follow your posts and advice and use this as a catalyst for permanent change. I don’t have much to complain about in life and its time I stopped making excuses for letting myself down. My inner voice is strong but my ego seems to have him covered. Your post had reminded me of a strength I had that has failed me in the past few years. Thank you. I’m going to have a good look for it.

    Thanks for the blessing. Your bad days have had more purpose than mine do.

    Lee

    Reply
    • Hi Lee,

      I really appreciate your honesty in sharing your story.

      Listen, sometimes my bad days haven’t been so purposeful, either, I can assure you!

      But it does help to have some tools to work with in the bad times. I’m glad this post is helpful for you and I’d highly recommend either “The Happiness Trap” or “The Reality Slap” by Russ Harris to give you more info about how to use these ideas in your life.

      Thanks so much again for your honesty! That’s the first, best step toward real change.

      Reply
  13. This is such a helpful post. When I began therapy many years ago for depression, a wise therapist told me that sometimes you just need to keep your head above the water and just get through it. That thought process was a form of “allow” but was more of a white-knuckled, just get through it process. I love the concept of just and allow, especially “I created space around it and gave it permission to be there.” As with many who struggle with depression, I withdraw when depressed. The concept of recognition and acceptance is almost an epiphany moment…to be able to function knowing that I’ve given the depression space to co-exist with the “normal” purposeful daily functions. Thank you for sharing this concept and for the honesty you bring by applying it to your own experiences.

    Reply
    • Hi Laura,

      I’m glad this is helpful for you. It is a relief to know that we don’t have to let depression run our lives. Just noticing and allowing are great steps toward giving us some space and unhooking from our own thoughts.

      Reply
  14. Very useful tips about dealing with depression. The same ‘ therapy’ applies for anger. Osho says that when we find anger arising in me due to some provocative statement or situation, one should just witness it without being judgmental. Anger or depression or some such emotional disharmony is due to the hurt to my ego. When I do not react, certain calmness descends, the emotional haze begins to lift up and i begin to see with greater clarity the circumstances that have pushed me to this state. Introspection follows and chances are that I am able to regain balance and meet life’s situation with greater confidence.

    Reply
  15. Beautiful post and especially the analogy of the hands representing our thoughts and feelings. After going through a tough time about 2 years ago and really struggling with my thoughts i read a book by Deepak Chopra called self power which stated that when we allow our thoughts to conquer us we operate from a state of “contracted awareness” which symbolises the hands infront of our face, it manifests itself by inviting isolation, negativity, fear, depression etc. Once we “expand our awareness” which is what lowering your hands symbolises we see the bigger picture and feel more connected to others and this principal is what i constantly live by. When i have moments of feeling like that i immediately know what actions to take to re-engage and detach from issues. I also taught myself to acknowledge bad thoughts etc just like in the blog but i attach them to a little cloud in my mind and let them float around or away as they wish as the book also refers to the fact that issues that need to be dealt with will keep comming back until they are fully resolved. As a result know that this will happen so choose to deal with it in a way that is congruent with healing the self instead of hurting the self and let it be and let the solutions unfold as long as you operate from expanded awareness it will all come in good time. There will always be issues so it helps to think of things that occupy much of your thoughts as solutions that need to be reached rather than problems ending as there will always be something else but if we accept it as a part of life rather than another problem we change the dynamic in our mind and as a result creates less internal stress and is conducive to the solutions being created.

    Reply
    • Yazzie, thanks for the this wonderful summary. It’s very true and instructive.

      Reply
  16. What a lovely heart felt article. I totally agree that we need to accept our feelings and to learn to express them compassionately and graciously and to allow them to flow away from us. They eventually go. The art is not to buy into that critical voice, the voice the Buddhists call the monkey mind. It will take us on a long dark road of negativity. We usually compound this practice just to feel worse about ourselves. Two techniques I like to use is firstly listen for silence. When I am trying to listen for silence my focus turns away from those automatic negative thoughts – ANTs- and secondly I talk to this critical voice as the inner child, telling it to be calm, things are different now, I am able to cope and live well. Both help at different times.
    Thanks for the article.

    Reply
    • Thanks for these tips, Karen, they are excellent!

      Reply
  17. Beautiful description of how to apply mindfulness practices to soften depressive feelings, Bobbi.

    Depression runs in my family (my father took his own life when I was 13, and, like him, my sister has bipolar disorder). My other sister and I suffered from various degrees of depression our whole adult lives, both of us on medication.

    Four years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After my mastectomy, they put me on Tamoxifen to reduce my risk of recurrence. But that drug reduced the effectiveness of Wellbutrin, the anti-depressant I was taking. I was dealing with so many changes at the time (including being told I shouldn’t drink anymore), that I decided to put off finding a Wellbutrin substitute.

    I was also told that cardio exercise most days of the week would reduce my risk of recurrence, so I started running. Once I worked up to 4-5 days a week of running or other cardio, I noticed a drastic improvement in my mental health. I was truly happy for the first time in my life. But if I stopped exercising, my mood deteriorated again.

    Then I accidentally downloaded Eckhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose” on to my iPod, thinking I was going to get career guidance. I had no idea he was a spiritual teacher, and I wasn’t looking for that.

    But in his explanation of how our egos work, I learned that I didn’t need to listen to every thought in my head. And his revelation (for me at least), that all we need to give attention to is the present moment helped me to stop focusing on the past and the future. My motto today is “take action where you can, and let go of the rest.”

    Today I meditate every day using the getsomeheadspace.com program. Andy Puddicomb’s mindfulness guidance during the meditation sessions has helped me to simply note thoughts and feelings as they arrive (both during the meditation and throughout the day). Most helpful was his recommendation to not only note when a feeling arises, but also when it ends. That helps us realize that nothing is permanent. The feelings are not “us”. They will come and go.

    Sorry for the long comment — it’s just that I’m so fully content these days because of the combination of mindfulness practices and regular exercise. I can’t say enough about it!

    Reply
    • Martha, thanks so much for telling your story! It is full of so many great ideas and tips. I didn’t know about getsomeheadspace.com. It looks like a valuable resource.

      Learning that we don’t have to believe every thought we have has been liberating for me as I can tell it has been for you. And I’m glad that Andy encourages you to note when the feeling ends because it is really easy to get into a space where we think a feeling is going to go on forever when, in reality, they come and go like most other things in life.

      Reply
  18. Love this, Bobbi! It’s refreshing to read something that helps to improve they way you feel or deal with your emotions and thoughts, but doesn’t promise a quick fix or a magic bullet. Deep down we all know we have to keep working at it :)

    Great article; thanks for sharing this information!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Kimberley. Glad it was helpful!

      Reply
  19. Hi Bobbi,
    I really appreciate these kinds of insights, quite simple practices to implement during a time when it’s difficult to remember to do anything at all. I really love the analogy of your hands, I think I am going to physically use this the next time I am in that kind of space. For some reason, these kind of physical things make a big difference for me.
    Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

    Marianne

    Reply
    • Hi Marianne,

      Sometimes analogies are much more powerful than words. And it’s nice to have a portable one like your hands that you can use anywhere!

      Reply
  20. Hi Bobbi,

    Wonderful post, it really helped me.

    I have been feeling depressed for some days now, after being dumped by my girlfriend recently. We’re in relationship for last 3 years. So it’s really a hard time for me. I’m really depressed and sad about my current situation as she is the first love of my life. Your post really helped me to feel good and get rid of the depression to much extent.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Reply
    • I’m glad it was helpful, Sailendu!

      Reply
  21. Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.

    Surrender is an amazing practise but we only know what we know. I think your exercise will help people if they actually do the work but thats about desire.

    Reply
  22. I relate a lot to your story here.

    A nomad by heart, i have ticked my first part, i moved to another country and it has changed me a lot (for better i hope).

    Now have been planning to move again soon so i can tick my second part.

    Thanks for sharing. I truly enjoy reading it.

    Reply
  23. Reminds me of a series of studies on various ways of treating PTSD. Those who tried using affirmations ended up worse for it, because the energy required to regulate their emotions kept them so drained that they had little left to pursue the positive in life.

    Reply
    • By the way, is that a picture of you when you were younger Bobbi? Minus the throat joking, damn hot if it is.

      Reply
      • Ha ha! No, that DEFINITELY is not me when I was younger! Who knows, Amit, that girl might still be available . . .

        Reply
  24. Excellent, Bobbi.

    As usual, you have a very warm and easy way of talking (writing) us through complex and difficult processes. Unhooking and *just noticing* can be difficult for me. But even just picturing that exercise helps me understand how important it is to do so.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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