When Words of Depression Block My Mind

Detail of Mixed Media Painting by Choichun Leung

The words I hear when I’m depressed are limited, negative and decidedly lacking in color, but they can all too easily block my mind and feelings. I’m stuck on “I can’t” when I want to do something important to me. I’m either in a trance of inaction or caught in fear. Either way, I can’t think around the words of depression to get in touch with the inner energy I need to move.

Of course, the words alone are not powerful, but I have come over many years to use them as symbols that tap into depths of feeling and belief. When depressed, I accept them without question as the factual truth of who I am and what I can and cannot do.

Taking Words Apart

There are some forms of psychotherapy that have helped me take aim at the words themselves. The idea is to break their hold by kicking them around, rearranging or repeating them out loud until they lose their coherence or start to appear like empty syllables. They lose their connection with my beliefs about myself.

I stop accepting them as true statements and factual descriptions of my life. Mind and feelings loosen up and can reorganize. Suddenly, the command of “I can’t” is no longer a barrier. Something shifts, and I can look at myself and the things I want to do with a sense of greater possibility.

This is different from simply feeling better because depression is lifting, and I can do things again. After all, that wouldn’t be much of an advance if I had to wait for depression to go away before I could start moving. I would still be at the mercy of the comings and goings of an illness.

This feeling is more about breaking out of a rigid and limiting state of mind to become more responsive to immediate experience. I”m not thinking about getting rid of depression. I’m just trying to break the hold of the belief that: “I can’t do it.”

Changing the Relationship to Words

Breaking into the power of the words seems to change my relationship to them and everything they’ve come to represent in my life. In talking about words, I mean more than their printed versions. Their meanings depend on tempo, tone of voice and even the way I visualize them.

When it comes to “I can’t do it,” the tone is often sharp, clamp-like, snap shut. Sometimes, it has a tactile feel like pumice or sandpaper on my skin, or like a swelling in my throat. Speaking the sentence at a different pace, whether I slow it down so the individual words lose connection with each other, or I shoot them out rapid-fire, repeating them over and over again, the effect is the same. They lose their meaning, and I can feel that like a physical change, a lightening of a burden or a loosening of stiff muscles.

Sometimes, I can visualize the words on a giant banner and spread them wide apart. Or I think of them on a theater marquee with letters broken off, turning them into nonsense. Or I rearrange the letters to form as many different words as I can and focus on those instead of the original sentence.

I don’t know why, but I can start to feel differently as I use these methods. The change doesn’t come from a conscious decision. It’s a shift in the felt sense, the body’s pre-verbal awareness.

I only came to believe in the effectiveness of this approach by using it successfully one day. I had been feeling especially incapacitated by a spell of depression and frustrated that I couldn’t complete a piece of writing. I decided to try the approach of focusing on the words to see what effect this could have.

An Inner Shift Away from Depression

The first step was becoming aware of how often I was telling myself, in one form or another, I can’t do it. I heard this every time I tried to do what I wanted to do. That day it happened to be completing a piece of writing.

I kept saying the words, I can’t do it. Then I repeated I can’t for a while. Then I changed it to I won’t. Then I spoke the words, “I can not,” “I will not,” “I am not.” I listened to each word to get the sound and meaning of it.

I started to feel more relaxed, and then thought, why the “not”? So I went a step farther and said to myself: “I am …” I am sitting here, just sitting.

Dropping the whole idea of “not” had an unexpected effect. Something started to shift in the way I felt.

I could relax into feeling what I was experiencing in that moment. I stopped thinking about not writing. Focusing on what I was not doing took me out of the present and buried my mind in self-condemnation for what I had failed to do in the past or was sure I would fail at in the future.

It’s so easy to turn the here-and-now into the negative of a future that you never quite achieve. In that state of mind, my awareness is fixed on what I have not yet done, and so I feel anxious or hopeless. Anxiety and hope are about some other time, or other place, or other condition, the expectation of what is to come.

There was something quite powerful in simply saying “I am,” so I said it several times. I repeated the words slowly, giving them time to sink in. They kept resonating, and suddenly I realized that I wasn’t concerned about words but was more alive to what was going on around me. My senses felt sharpened. My mind was more alert.

There was no effort involved in this, no straining to get it right or worry about following the steps of a prescribed exercise. I felt relaxed, alert, curious and calmly energized.

Reclaiming the Present

Then I could start writing and quickly became absorbed in the task. The question of “can” or “can’t” disappeared. I was simply doing what I wanted to do.

I had not tried to analyze my thoughts, as I might when using cognitive therapy techniques. I had not spotted a pattern of universalizing a problem or tried to reframe the idea of what I could do in a realistic way.

I had managed to detach myself from the belief that I couldn’t do anything by focusing on the words that I had been accepting as true. I hadn’t approached this in terms of mindfulness by observing the flow of thoughts with the help of meditation, but the result was similar.

The words of depression were no longer spoken in my voice as the truth of who I was. They had become tools that I could work with to help evoke a different state of mind and feeling.

Small breakthrough moments like this one make me wonder all the more at how people, so rich in possibilities, can come to believe, when they are depressed, that they can’t do a thing.

Have you found a way to break the hold of such depressive beliefs and of the words that seem to confirm their truth?

10 Responses to “When Words of Depression Block My Mind”

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  1. Jaliya says:

    Oh, I have to admit this … John, you ask your readers, “Have you found a way to break the hold of…depressive beliefs and of the words that seem to confirm their truth?”

    Lately, I’ve taken to simply saying, out loud (if apropos!), “BULLSHIT!” ~ and sometimes I ‘Bob-Newhart’ myself: I’ll just say (again, out loud if apropos), “STOP IT!” like he did in a sketch where he played a therapist whose every utterance to his client was “STOP IT!” (I’ve worked as a therapist; my first reactions were, “Why didn’t I think of that!?”, and laughter.)

    If I say “I can’t” to myself, my next thought is “Really?” My health is in a place where I need to assess what is truly possible and what is not. Lots of reality checks, and curiosity (It’s said somewhere that curiosity is one of three primary indicators of healthy overall brain function).

    All told, I think I’m just taking less shit from my own self 😉 … and having some fun, for the first time in my life, with old, old habits of mind. Merciful fun. 🙂 Major depression has been part of my metabolic makeup since earliest childhood; I recall being five and thinking, with intent, “I want to kill myself” — at the kitchen table, while eating lunch! The sadness I feel now at knowing this is shattering; I can’t focus on it for long. I start to breeeathe, and I’ll often write. I’m likely to pick myself up and get something to eat or drink — to tend my basic needs like any loving elder would do for a child. — the basic needs of safety, shelter, warmth, water, food, relation.

    As often as not, I crack myself up 😀 Perhaps it’s advancing age (mid-50s), but I have become much more compassionate toward the human condition in general and mine in particular … and I’m a lot less tolerant of bullshit, especially my own!

    I also, if my mood goes wonky, check to see if I need to eat or drink (hydrate), rest / be quiet, or warm up. Mood and metabolism are so intricately entwined … and it’s often the basics of bodily care that need tending to; they’re the first ‘markers’ I check when something goes awry within …

  2. Abhishek Tyagi says:

    Hello Myself Abhishek and i am 19 years old.Please take time in reading my post.I will be very grateful to you.I am seriously very depressed and tired from past few months
    .I ma from past few months facing a problem which i would like to discuss with you if u don’t mind as it involves more of a psychiatry issue.
    Actually this may sound awkward to you but this is what disturbing me like hell.
    few months back i read on internet that just thinking about yawning makes us yawn.even looking at someone who’s yawning makes us yawn.even reading the word yawning makes us yawn.From that day this problem started.i actually had a quite bad experience with yawning.As when i yawn couple of times my facial skin from inside around cheeks starts swelling and my face looks bad .i have 60kgs weight and never been fat till now but my face some how looks fat.And i can bet you on that yawning swells my facial skin from inside as i sometimes experience painful stretching while yawning.so i used to avoid yawning.But when i came to know about this awareness that just thinking about yawning makes us yawn even.Then it became hard for me.I have a quite bad past experience with intrusive thoughts and now when my mind thinks about yawning,i see word of yawning as a vision.the word yawning comes again and again as a thought and my attention suddenly goes to this thought only no matter what so ever i am doing at that point of time.It comes again and again and again every minute and continues and after sometime i feel lot of headache along with sweating in my palms and legs along with rapid heart beat.But now i don’t avoid yawning because of my facial skin problem as i just let it surrender to GOD.But why i am so sick of this is because this thought has surrounded me so badly that i just can’t get out of it.It’s like i can’t find any thing to distract my self from this.
    My condition could have been perfect if i was not aware of this fact that thinking of yawning makes us yawn or even reading the word yawn makes us yawn.
    And now the thought of yawning whether it be a vision or awareness comes continuously as some kind of background thought and tries to kill me slowly.It’s like my mind has become as enemy of me.truly speaking i am a strong guy and has strong will power but i am loosing my grip on this thing and i am left with no choice but to get help to over come this problem as i did my best but nothing helped .
    i will be very thankful to you if you could help.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Abhishek –

      I urge you to see a doctor about this. Apparently, excessive yawning can be related to problems with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and can often be treated with a form of cognitive therapy that helps you deal with this kind of intrusive thinking. But the problem could also be caused by neurological problems that can be quite serious, so it’s important to rule those out. Yawning is a very basic human response and when something goes wrong with it, you should treat this as a medical problem, not as something you can control on your own. Mind and body are not separate systems but are closely related and influence each other at every moment. So I hope you will see a doctor about this right away.

      My best to you —


  3. Tracy Rose says:

    Hi John,

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    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Tracy –

      Thanks for including Storied Mind. Events like this help identify other good blogs readers here might like.


  4. Donna-1 says:

    Unfortunately, this is the type of exercise that doesn’t help me. And I do understand what you are saying about the power of words, their familiarity, their often-ignored presence, and our ability to manipulate and attenuate their hold by various means. Words DO help me when I use them to write poetry. So maybe I’m not far off the mark, because poetry often mixes words and meanings and sounds in unusual ways, unexpected ways. And it causes me to re-think what a particular word means in the context of my life. And to sometimes imbue these words with a kind of “separate life” beyond their dictionary definition and pronunciation. With poetry, I kind of create my own personal language. I think that is why people often say they “just don’t understand poetry.” You have to suspend your own private connotations and walk into the world of someone else’s.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I never used to respond to exercises of this type either, but these days perhaps I can better attend to the words as a result of all the work I’ve done on focusing and mindfulness. It sounds like your way of being present with your poetry is similar in its effect. This is about the power of your own words to reflect negative self-judgments and learning to experience the words as coming from something deeper in you that stands outside of disabling ideas. Writing poetry brings out the same larger presence, and the words echo differently. Imbuing the words with a separate life is a beautiful way of putting it.


  5. Judy says:

    John, I really like what you’re saying here. I don’t know how many hundreds of time I’ve thought to myself, “I can’t” even if I don’t even know what it is I can’t do! Sometimes it feels like it’s simply preceding “go on.” But I’ve found, too, that if I’m able to put aside self-judgment and just BE, it’s not so disturbing when I start feeling overwhelmed. I do think age and experience adds to our ability to let go of some of this stuff and truly “get” that we have more power than it sometimes feels like – and that the sun still rises every day, no matter what, even if it’s behind the clouds.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      Age and experience may have something to do with it, but I saw a wonderful demonstration of this method by a therapist working with a young woman in her twenties. In just a few minutes of shifting the words around in her imagination, visualizing them in different ways, she made a big breakthrough in connecting with her own power to do things. She cried in relief and happiness. I think that once you learn skills like that, they stay with you, though they certainly don’t dispel depression completely.



  1. Storied Mind says:

    When Words of Depression Block My Mind…

    When Words of Depression Block My Mind The words I hear when I’m depressed are limited, negative…

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