Choose Your Words Wisely — Your Brain Is Listening

How human language can hurt your mental health

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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.

How we learn relationships

We are of course the only species on the planet capable of complex speech and language.

Fido can learn that a word is followed by a tasty treat.
It’s the transitive property!

Unlimited links

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.

Files of the mind

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.

A simple thought can dredge up sensory info, thoughts, memories and more.

The plot thickens

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.

Objectivity schmobjectivity

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Train your brain to see more good and less bad


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.

Stacey is a freelance writer who likes to write about things that make our brains and hearts work better.

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