How does the language we use impact our perception of our experience?
Whether you’re describing your experience to others or speaking to yourself, the words you choose matter.
This is Part 3 of a series on the language we use to discuss “mental health” issues.
In Part 1 I shared how the very term “mental health” is misleading because it obscures the fact that health is health: thoughts, emotions, and physiological sensations are all related.
In Part 2 I shared how the labels of illness and disorder create separation and remove our agency to break the patterns of thoughts and behavior that are the root of our experience.
Today I want to share how the labels we give these conditions can block our path to healing.
Labels Oversimplify What’s Happening
There’s been great progress in bringing “mental health” issues into the public conversation. But most of this discussion is focused on the labels: anxiety, depression, etc. (I’m focused on these because they are the most common.)
This doesn’t really serve us.
The labels we place on mental health conditions are an attempt to categorize a complex web of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This generalization makes it easy for to check a box for a diagnosis, but it obscures the process of healing.
When we use a label like “anxiety” or “depression” we avert from a discussion about the patterns of emotions, thoughts, and somatic feelings that comprise our experience of the condition.
As a result, although we have made some progress in bringing “mental health issues” into the public conversation, that progress is an illusion. It only takes us further away from the underlying elements. We continue to remain uncomfortable speaking about actual emotions and the thought loops that often accompany them.
If we are serious in our desire to bring these mental and emotional health issues into the open, then we need to move beyond general labels and be specific about what we feel and perceive.
What’s Actually Happening When We Feel “Anxiety” and “Depression”?
When we say something like “I feel anxious,” or “I feel depressed” or “I am anxious” or “I am depressed,” what exactly is going on?
Anxiety and depression — I’ll focus here because they are the most common “mental illnesses” — are not emotions in and of themselves. They are labels we apply when we experience a certain pattern of physiological sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
A Mask for Our Emotions
The primary emotions underlying anxiety are fear and a loss of control.
Of course, “anxiety” sounds more palatable than “fear.”
Depression, too, is a catch-all for a mix of emotions, which may include loneliness, sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, anger, irritability, fear, disconnected, tired, and unmotivated.
Using the terms “anxiety” and “depression” keeps us separated from our experience. We avoid feeling the pain of the emotion.
And because we cannot heal what we are unwilling to feel, we don’t heal the pain. This is how we remain stucknn
It’s no surprise that many people experience both anxiety and depression — they are part of the same cycle. Fear separates us from ourselves, and from others. This leads us to feeling lonely, sad, and hopeless. We feel a loss of control, and a fear of being alone forever. When we feel like we have no control over our lives, we get irritable and angry.
It’s all one issue.
By labeling these states as “conditions,” we remove our agency to address the pain we feel. We instead try to numb the pain through drugs and alcohol, push it down with food, or escape it through work and busy-ness.
Imagine if, instead of saying “I feel anxious,” you said “I feel fear.” What if, instead of saying you felt “depressed” you shared that you felt lonely or hopeless?
When we name what we feel, we tame it. Those emotions that loom large lose their power over us the moment we call them out.
Every emotion we feel shows up in our body in some way. When clients tell me that they feel “anxiety” I ask them to describe the actual somatic experience. I do the same for myself.
Instead of rushing to label it, I seek to describe it.
Typically, for me, it’s a constriction in my chest, butterflies in my stomach, a lump in my throat, and a tightening in my hip flexors. For others it might be sweaty palms or a headache.
Depression might feel like fatigue and emptiness, or a heaviness in the heart.
As you develop greater somatic awareness, you begin to notice things. You may notice, for example, that the physiology you associate to fear or anxiety is the same as the physiology you associate to “excitement” and “anticipation.”
The more we can neutralize the meaning that we give to any physical feeling, the more we can get out of our story.
You can neutralize the somatic experience by changing the story about it. Instead of calling it “anxiety” try saying “I wonder what will happen…” in an excited tone. Notice how it changes your experience.
A Block to Our Thoughts
Any emotion lasts for only 90 seconds. What prolongs the experience are the voices in our minds; the stories we tell about what we feel.
It’s not the emotion itself that’s so damaging; it’s the story we tell about it. Once we tell a story, we find facts to confirm the story.
When we can bring awareness to the story we tell ourselves in those moments of “anxiety” or “depression,” we stop the power of the story.
As meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn explains:
We often relate to our thoughts, whether they are intensely negative or not, as a reliable statement of the truth….You believe what your thoughts are telling you. Mindfulness of thoughts allows you to be aware of a thought or strong emotion as a kind of a storm in the mind or an event in awareness. Once you see it as an event or a storm, it no longer has the same power over you.
When we label our experienced with a general term like “anxiety” or “disorder” we block ourselves from feeling and healing the underlying pains.
The best way to overcome anxiety, depression, or other “mental health” issues is to notice the patterns: name the underlying emotion, observe the mind, and bring awareness to your physiology.
Most important, to overcome anxiety, stop calling it anxiety.