The mind loves a story. Stories, myths and legends play a really important role in our sense-making experience as human beings. Among other things their universality reminds us that those who have gone before us have faced adversity, challenge, and have had to draw upon resources they didn’t know they had in order to overcome, accept or learn to live with life’s woes and mysteries. Most of us can relate to these in our own unique ways. Stories help us to realise we are not alone. It’s why we read novels and watch movies and soaps. Shared experience connects us to the bigger picture of what it is to be a person in a world full of other people. The way we are able to insert ourselves into stories, both the one’s we read and those other people share with us demonstrates our empathy centres in action. We get to feel things and try them out at the imaginary level.
Years ago, I became curious about Hypnotherapy and trained in Ericksonian Hypnosis. It isn’t something that I ever practised in a career sense, but it was fascinating and taught me a lot about the processes of the unconscious mind. Hypnosis makes use of our ability to imagine ourselves into myriad situations. The process involves the therapist speaking to the receptive unconscious part of the mind – the emotion detecting part of the mind which responds to metaphor, narrative, sentiment and drama. The imaginative mind is able to insert itself, and thereby us, into the guts of the story, making use of the deliberate ambiguity of language that allows us to join the imaginary adventure. The benefit of this is that where there is space to imagine – our minds are able to entertain possibility – technically, by utilisation of the inbuilt virtual reality centre situated in the frontal-cortex. We call this process ‘daydreaming’ when it’s taking place without conscious awareness, as opposed to ‘thinking’ which is what we are doing when we are engaging the mind deliberately with intentional purpose of outcome. Daydreaming is where we float into imagining things that are desirable to us which can be an enjoyable pastime. The flip side to daydreaming about possibility is called ruminating, which is still a form of imagining that we can also slide into without actively choosing to, however this type of imagining tends to focus less enjoyably on unwanted scenarios. Why is it important to understand these processes and their distinctions?
Simply put, when we think in stories, we feel them as a full sensorimotor embodied experience. Thinking and imagining engages the whole of us and the entire self often feels as though it has not only thought about a topic, but actually feels as though daydreams have to an extent been lived, and experienced. Who hasn’t imagined a scenario and emotionally responded to it as if it’s actually happened? We can put ourselves into a bad mood imagining confrontations that never actually take place in real life. We also experience emotions and physical experiences vicariously through observing or encountering other people in action when we watch movies or read novels, or hear about the life experience of a friend through conversation. Emotionally when we see someone who is upset, we experience an empathic response which gives us a taste of what they are going through. This empathetic response allows us to understand and relate to one another more deeply. Similarly our brains learn vicariously at the physical level. We learn new skills through watching demonstrations of how they are done, we then feel as well as know, via instruction how to go ahead and try them out. A friend of mine asked her 4-year-old if she was nervous about learning to ski, her answer was ‘No Mum, my brain already knows how to ski, my body just hasn’t done it yet.’ From watching others (on the freezing Scottish slopes of Glen Shee) and then imagining herself skiing, she felt as though she had already experienced it, and in a way, she had. Her nervous system went skiing before her body did, and she knew it.
Why am I rambling on about stories, metaphors, and daydreaming? Because it is so important to realise that we are more than just cognitive behavioural beings. Imagining and daydreaming is often how we spend a fair bit of our time. It matters that we know how useful the daydreaming process can be, so that if we need to, or want to, we can deliberately harness and experience the benefits of this inbuilt system. We are not just theory driven brains plonked on top of a body, we gain insight and a sense of possibility by experiencing ourselves in a mixture of ways. Different parts of the brain process different forms of information. That’s why co-forming a narrative around our experience, with a good therapist can do more to transform how we feel than any cold hard facts, details and explanations that we are aware of at the rational level. We all know what our problems are, we are experts in what has gone wrong and can report our issues in great detail, but knowing things at the logical level is only part of the healing jigsaw. Co-creating our story when we feel safe to do so often allows our mind to make meaning of ourselves and our lives. The process allows us to file things away with greater understanding and acceptance. Like daydreaming however, when times are challenging we can find ourselves stuck in a habit of rumination, which can sometimes be disadvantageous. When we continuously find ourselves sloshing around in our memories, reliving our worst stories, we re-experience them over and over, and because we often struggle to make sense of them alone, because of the limitations of our ability to see our own experiences objectively at times, they keep repeating themselves. Our brains like to have an experience, make sense of it, then file it away for future reference. When we can’t come to an understanding, the experience feels incomplete, so is filed away partially understood and keeps popping up again for us to complete the sense-making task so it can be crossed off the to do list. This can make us feel stressed, depressed, and as though we are stuck in a loop of picking at psychological wounds. An experience many of us try to escape from, one way or another.
When people who are feeling anxious and I work together, we work with these natural tendencies of the brain, mind and nervous system. We use the minds innate communication system to create harmony so that we don’t go into opposition with any part of ourselves. We take advantage of how the mind, body, and emotions can work together to restore balance to the system as a whole. Life is hard and challenging, with lots of experiences causing us to have distorted stories in our minds about who we are. The stories we tell ourselves and others are important, they have an impact. Learning to add perspective, compassion and possibility to our stories is invaluable. There is a guided daydream built in to the out of the loop process. It’s a very simple process, but one that opens up our mind to the notion of generating more helpful stories, reminding us we are more than what has happened to us.
Opportunities to shape our understanding of ourselves and others can be enhanced by engaging with myth, legend and adventures. Exploring Jungian analysis, the wisdom of Confucius, Zen Koans, stories of the Tao, religious fables, Greek myths, Roman myths and even fairy tales and horoscopes, can awaken us in ways that are often absent from Psychiatry, Psychology and Bio-medicine. We are all different, we experience ourselves and our lives in complex ways, so multiple options for healing and choice can only benefit us surely? Good Mental Health comes in many guises, and always has. Enjoy adventuring into the future.