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  • Writer's pictureKarin Blak

The Power of Language: How Words Can Affect Our Mental Health

Image: Bruno Martins, Unsplash

When we speak about experiences of mental health issues, we often talk about how we “fight” with depression, or that we need to “beat” anxiety or panic attacks. We talk about how we must “struggle through”, or that we are “battling” with a borderline personality disorder. We listen to reports and read articles about how people have “waged a war” against their mental health issues. But how do these expressions affect the very issues we are trying to recover from?

Although the words we use have been long established in our language and we use them without thought, it does seem that we are unknowingly nurturing a hostile environment for our mental health conditions. Listen to them again:

  • Fight

  • Beat

  • Struggle

  • Battling

  • Wage a war

These words of conflict and violence are likely to promote an environment that is angry and combative. It seems we are creating a setting of a battlefield and yet expect our tender emotions and thoughts to heal and mend, to thrive. In this militarised landscape, it is little wonder we might experience the need to suppress our emotions and thoughts to stand a chance of survival.

The nature of mental health conditions

There is no doubt that mental health issues are difficult, they can be destructive and debilitating. They often stem from experiences of neglect, lack of understanding, trauma, or outright abuse. If then we add the words of violence, our mental health issues become harder to accept and learn to manage.

Mental health issues by their very nature are delicate psychological conditions. If we then try to manage this inner world by battling with it, killing it off or fighting through it, I wonder how likely we are to make friends with it or get to know it, so we can work with it?

Faced with a fragile glass jar that won’t open, would we take a hammer to it? So why, when faced with mental health issues, do we want to fight it? If we create a hostile environment, should we expect a positive result?

The effect of embracing the language of war

In hostile conditions, we do not thrive, and we will not develop as we would in a supportive and encouraging environment. In situations of battle, we try to survive by suppressing what might put us in further danger, or by running away. We try to adapt to the situation at extreme costs to our own physical and mental health, just to stay alive or at least with a minimum of damage.

Embracing this fighting language when talking about mental health issues is encouraging it to go underground. We talk about fighting a losing battle with depression. Or that we need to weather the storm. Or that we are in deep waters. Or that we are living with a black dog, growling at our heels. If we use this negative language, we will likely collude with the condition, making it fight harder against us as we reach for the light, or dragging us further into its hold on us.

When we look upon a mental health condition as something bad, as something that is not allowed to exist, we will feel imperfect or without a right to be a contributing part of society. We are rejects or damaged goods. We reject a part of ourselves that doesn’t ‘fit in’.

My own story

At my very lowest quite some years ago, I was in such a deep depression that I physically saw my surroundings as if through a dark tunnel. It was when I began to plan my suicide that I decided it was time to change my approach to my psychological wellness. Beating myself up metaphorically wasn’t working, I needed a different tactic. I wasn’t able to get myself out of the depression, but I became determined to at least make the place in my head as comfortable as I could.

Using imagery, I visualized the depression as a room, and I set about making this room comfortable with soft furnishings. It was when I turned on a simple desk lamp in this imagined room that something happened. Suddenly it became an okay place to be, not somewhere to stay in forever, but somewhere that wasn’t scary or pushing me into a place where I didn’t want to exist.

Here, I didn’t have to struggle or feel cold and lost anymore. I found my ability to soothe myself, a place where I could be gentle and compassionate with myself.

There was no fighting left, no hostile environment, just acceptance that this was where I was, for now. it was the first step to recovery.

The psychiatric “disorder”

The mental health profession, while working to extinguish the stigma surrounding psychological struggles, seems to be unaware of the damaging effect of the words used to describe mental health conditions.

“Disorder” is used with most psychiatric conditions, yet it is a word that suggests we have disorderly emotions and thoughts, and that what we are experiencing on the inside needs to be reprimanded. If something is disorderly it is unpleasant or badly behaved. If we have a psychiatric diagnosis, it is highly likely to have the word “disorder” added on the end:

  • Anxiety disorder

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Borderline personality disorder

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Psychotic disorder

Our emotions and thoughts become undesirable, leaving us feeling tarred and unacceptable.

Emotions, even when they are at their worst, are providing us with a rainbow of opportunities and experiences of life. We need to be able to feel sadness, anger or confusion, or we will not be able to experience emotions at the other end of the scale: joy, fun, contentment. The highs and lows.

When emotions are strong and overwhelming, it is because they want us to take notice of them, perhaps set them free or embrace them, make them feel okay about being there. And perhaps we need a little help in doing this safely.

Put these emotional conditions on a battlefield and we are likely to feel beaten or unaccepted and we will probably feel worse, not better.

Using the word “condition” rather than “disorder” opens up the possibility for change. It is non-judgemental, neutral even, and introduces the option of being flexible — it doesn’t indicate anything undesirable or unacceptable. It is just a condition and we can learn to work with it and through it.

Is it time to change?

Let’s change the language of mental health issues. We can shine a light on depression even when it seems steeped in darkness. We can embrace our anxieties and learn to gently soothe them. We can be taught to befriend that personality teetering on some kind of border. We can work to improve our mental health condition, rather than creating an inner conflict — in addition to the one already there — between what we should experience and what we are experiencing.

It may not be the easiest thing to do. But it is certain to create a more pleasant and collaborative experience than waging war on our vulnerable inner world that, if it could choose, would probably be more content if only we could hold it, hug it, comfort it.

Perhaps if we can begin to change the language around mental health, we will naturally see an improvement in our acceptance of all our emotions and those of others. No longer undesirable, these emotions are likely to lose their power over us, making it possible to integrate them and become less overwhelmed by them.

If you want to read more about therapy, how it works and gain insight into the complete therapy journey, my book goes into more detail:

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