How human language can hurt your mental health
Have you ever wondered why animals almost never get depressed, while it appears to be a common human experience? It might boil down to the fact that humans can talk.
Language is far more than a bunch of words and some rules for how to use them. It’s linked to the way we learn and the way we see the world. Words, despite being arbitrary symbols, carry meaning far beyond their literal meanings. Language can frame the way we think; and if you’re like most people, the way you think can often determine how you feel.
Words do have the power to hurt us, but understanding this framework better could give us the key to training our brains to think and feel better.
Relational Frame Theory
Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language that also explains a lot about human behavior, and, it seems, human suffering. It’s at the core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a treatment modality that’s part of the “third wave” of mindfulness-based therapies that are often utilized for treating depression and anxiety.
RFT argues that our language entails learning an extremely complex network of relationships between not only words and their meanings, but also thoughts, emotions, memories, and narratives. It’s a pervasive theory that does a pretty good job of explaining a surprising amount of human behavior. That includes the way we think, for better or worse.
How we learn relationships
We are of course the only species on the planet capable of complex speech and language.
To begin to illustrate the incredible complexity of human language, let’s start with a simple comparison. Most people are probably familiar with Pavlov’s famous experiments… a dog can certainly learn that after you say “treat”, he will get a dog biscuit. Unless you have a well-trained dog, just saying “treat” in his presence may cause him to perk up his ears, jump around and start salivating. Clearly, he has learned that the word “treat”(A) will result in a dog biscuit (B).
So has he learned a word? Not quite — he’s learned a conditioned response; he’s learned if “A” happens, “B” will follow as a result. But if you give your dog a biscuit first, it doesn’t make him think the word “treat.” Animals are largely incapable of learning the reciprocal relationship, B → A.
Humans, on the other hand, do this naturally, without explicitly being taught. We’re so used to this phenomenon that I’m obligated to explain it; If A is related to B… it seems almost silly to point out that, therefore, B is related to A.
A big part of being human means continuously learning relationships and meanings and storing that information, something your brain does without much awareness on your part.
But as simple as this seems, it gets complicated quickly. If I tell you that A is related to B, and B is related to C, you will also infer that A is related to C… and vice versa.
If I tell you, for example, that the big bright thing in the night sky (A) is called “moon” (B), and that the word for “moon” in Spanish is “luna” (C), you’d then know A → B → C from what I directly told you, but you’d also infer that the bright thing in the sky can be called “luna” (A → C). And don’t forget the reverse of all three, giving us a total of six relationships between three things.
These simple examples, easily taught to a 3-year-old, are already far more complex than Fido can figure out. A big part of being human means continuously learning relationships and meanings and storing that information, something your brain does without much awareness on your part. And because you construct these systems without really paying attention, it can be enlightening to see what kind of information you’re hauling around upstairs.
So far, we’ve talked about how we’re able to relate words to physical objects, i.e., naming. But naming is just one type of relationship known as a frame of coordination, which defines things that have similar qualities; another example would be the sun and moon are both celestial objects. There are also frames of comparison, such as “the sun is bigger than the moon.” Within comparisons, many other relationships come to mind… shorter/taller, better/worse, earlier/later, quieter/louder, weaker/stronger, older/younger… we can relate things by size, shape, color, density, composition, height, age, gender marital status, religious affiliation, and on and on.
There are also frames of opposition (humans have walked on the moon but not the sun), and hierarchical frames (the sun and moon are part of the solar system, which is part of the Milky Way galaxy, etc.). There are even deictic frames that are context-dependent; for example, “The moon is high in the sky,” is obviously dependent on what time I’m looking.
You can see how quickly these relationships add up and how complicated and interconnected they can be. As Contextualscience.org states, “the number of relational frames is limited only by the creativity of the social/verbal community that trains them.” In other words, the way you can relate two words/ideas to each other is essentially unlimited. But the average adult human knows a lot more than two words… somewhere around 30,000. And 30k x unlimited is… a lot.
Files of the mind
dark thoughts are never very far from the tip of your brain.
As things begin to get more complicated, I feel that an analogy can be useful here. When it comes to the brain, the computer model seems increasingly apt.
If our brain stores all the words we know and maintains (many) links between them all, then we’re talking about a network. I imagine a network of files, all connected to each other via links. Thus the “moon” file would contain links to “sun” and anything else one might associate with it — night, planets, green cheese, and so on; each link representing a relational frame.
Just as with the internet, one can easily hop from one idea to another. If you know anything about networks or if you’ve ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, I don’t need to tell you that even a very large network can be traveled very quickly. That means that dark thoughts are never very far from the tip of your brain.
The other reason I like the computer analogy is that files can hold all kinds of data. Thus far the files look relatively simple in themselves, though vast in number. But we’ve only talked about names for things we can see in the external, physical world; as we go inside the inner world of the mind, we’ll start adding a variety of things to our files.
More than words
If you’ve ever had the experience of a dentist hitting a not-quite-numb nerve with a drill, I’m guessing you remember the feeling. We’re programmed pretty well to remember painful experiences so that we can avoid them in the future.
But pain is more than a word, which is technically just an arbitrarily assigned sound that has no meaning other than what we assign to it. Pain is sensory information; an actual signal from the outside world. It tells us a lot about how that world can affect us and vice versa, so it makes sense that you’d want to save that information as it relates to each file. I’m betting anyone who’s gotten a filling in a tooth before can recall the sound, smell, and taste of the whole process.
In the case of something like pain, your brain has devised a clever alert system to further tag relevant files: emotions. Emotions tend to come along with sensory information, so in the case of pain, the associated emotion is fear. They’re correlated, so the worse the pain, the worse the fear. I imagine for my dad, whose fear of the dentist is so intense that he now needs sedation dentistry, the “fear” tag on the file would be fluorescent, flashing, and probably accompanied by a blaring alarm. It’s designed to get your attention, after all.
The plot thickens
A word cannot exist in a vacuum. Words are always loaded, with associations, sensory info, emotions, thoughts, and stories.
And as long as we’re adding emotions, why not bring along thoughts, memories, and stories? Surely the memory of the time they hit a nerve with the drill is there; maybe even some childhood memories of getting toys at the dentist are buried somewhere in the file. There are even slightly self-deprecating thoughts like “I should have flossed more.”
By now you can probably see where this is going: a word cannot exist in a vacuum. Words are always loaded, with associations, sensory info, emotions, thoughts, and stories. Words can even affect us physiologically. I don’t need an actual dentist’s drill to cause your heart rate to increase and your breath to come shallow (at least, not if you’re like my dad); all I need do is say the word.
You may already be able to see how words and all the associated things they dredge up can affect you mentally, but there are a few specific ways worth diving into.
Negativity as a survival mechanism
The way our brain processes language opens the door to negative thinking. But don’t blame yourself; evolution equipped us with an inherent negativity bias.
Negative things are often ones that can hurt us, so your brain wants to keep you safe by bringing them to your attention so that you can fix them, or at least avoid them. That’s one reason why it tags things with strong emotions like fear, and why you’re more likely to remember or dwell on the negative. On balance, bringing attention to the negative helps you avoid dangers and keeps you alive.
That’s great, except that our brain hasn’t quite been updated to the current version: it evolved these abilities around the time our ancestors were roaming the savannah in hunter-gatherer tribes. Its threat-detection system knows nothing about the modern world and modern stresses. It thinks it’s training you to avoid getting eaten by lions; it doesn’t know that a dentist’s drill isn’t going to jump out from behind a tree and attack you. This system worked great for keeping our ancestors alive, but in our modern world, it’s more likely to make us miserable.
Evolution designed our brain to overreact (at least by modern standards) to “dangers in the environment,” because it values keeping you alive over telling you the truth. The negativity bias is one application of this; but besides cherry-picking negative thoughts, it also creates thoughts and makes links that aren’t even, strictly speaking, true at all.
Consider a thought like “I’ll never get a job.” Sure, maybe you mean it as hyperbole, but nobody told your brain. It thinks you just learned information, so it’s busy creating and strengthening the link between “I” and “job” with a link representing “never gonna happen.” The more you let your mind dwell on an association, the stronger the link becomes.
Mental time travel
We’ve already seen how memories can be attached to words, giving us an easy way to dwell on (mostly negative) past events. The whole concept of a trigger warning means that people recognize that just mentioning certain things can cause very traumatic memories of the past. Conversely, by using the “if, then” relationship, we can relate our current situation to possible future events, making it easy for us to imagine befalling all kinds of horrible fates.
Steven Hayes, who developed RFT and ACT, says, “As a result of these symbolic temporal relations, most people tend to live more in the verbally remembered past and the verbally imagined future than in the present moment.” Staying present, he suggests, is the first step towards feeling better.
Feeling better: where to start
The good news is that we can learn to be more present, weaken the erroneous links and their associated negative thoughts, and work to overcome negativity bias.
The tips below are just a few ways to start living more intentionally. They are adapted from ACT, which is an extensive therapy modality with a detailed protocol; many more resources are available online. Many ACT activities and worksheets can be found here.
It starts with seeing clearly and being present so that we can interact in the world in a more objective way.
Explore the mind… mindfully.
Recognizing the ways in which we think is a good place to start. The key here is metacognition or awareness of your thoughts. Don’t be the main character in your own story — be the author.
One way to do this is mindfulness meditation. While any form of mindfulness practice can help, you can even meditate directly on your own thoughts. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to clear your mind; it’s perfectly acceptable to think while meditating, by making your thoughts the object of meditation. But don’t confuse this process with rumination; you need to pay attention to your thoughts, and don’t judge — try to observe with curiosity.
Another way to practice metacognition is through writing or journaling. Don’t overthink it, just open a Google doc and start writing whatever comes up.
Practice cognitive defusion
It’s pretty easy to get into the habit of believing all our thoughts to be true, but disentangling from them can give you the distance to see them for what they are. For example, thinking, “I’m always so anxious” reinforces the link (the “fusion”) between “I” and “anxious” to the point you start to identify with your anxiety.
Cognitive defusion teaches you to see your thoughts for what they are; if you instead think “I’m having a thought that I’m always anxious,” it already feels like there’s space to question the thought itself. Is it even true? Defusing can weaken the links between you and the thoughts you’re having that probably aren’t 100% true anyway.
Train your brain to see more good and less bad
Where (toxic) positivity might argue, “There’s nothing bad in the world, I see only the good,” dialectical thinking would say, “there are bad things in the world, and I see the good.”
We can work to overcome our inherent negativity bias — there is good out there, our brains just filter it out.
If it sounds like I’m saying “just look on the bright side!” and you’re already rolling your eyes, I get it. I’m about the last person who would ever suggest something like a gratitude journal (although it works great for some people) as a way to “focus on the positive.” Being told to look for silver linings can feel very invalidating, as if you’re being asked to ignore your pain in favor of some kind of forced cheerfulness.
But it’s possible to acknowledge both the good and the bad. Third-wave modalities like ACT or DBT stress dialectical thinking, which can change the relationship between two opposing viewpoints. Where (toxic) positivity might argue, “There’s nothing bad in the world, I see only the good,” dialectical thinking would say, “there are bad things in the world, and I see the good.”
There’s a shortage of therapists out there, but for those who need more help, ACT and DBT can also be practiced independently, using workbooks or downloaded PDF activities. In the end, seeing clearly will give you a better picture of what’s true and what really matters to you.