From an email I got:
There’s a lot of it about at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere. Just about everyone I speak to has a cold, cough or both, and although I hoped I might skate unscathed through the winter months, right now I too have my fair share of the sniffles. I wouldn’t get too close to your computer screen if I were you.
But here’s the thing. I find it intriguing that people often take different linguistic approaches to describing their physical and mental health problems.
With a physical illness they’re likely to explain ‘I have a cold’ or ‘I’ve got the flu’. However, when it comes to a mood problem, some may be inclined to say ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I’m anxious’.
It would sound absurd to say ‘I am a cold’ or ‘I am the flu’, yet it’s all too easy to turn a mental health problem into something which seems to define us, rather than a problem that is hopefully time-limited.
Although it sounds a little awkward, surely it’s better to regard depression or anxiety as things we have, rather than things we are?
‘I am depressed’ sounds pretty long-term to me, whereas ‘I have depression’ feels a more temporary condition - even if it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as the ‘I am’ version.
Why should it matter, though? What difference does our choice of words make?
Well actually I think it’s probably pretty important. If I tell someone that I’m depressed, it seems to pigeon-hole me. And of course I hear myself saying the words when I speak them out loud. It can feel as though I’ve become the condition, whereas what I’d very much hope is that it’s a somewhat temporary state of mind.
Whether or not you buy into the entire concept of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), it’s fairly certain that we do listen to the stuff we tell ourselves: so it wouldn’t be surprising if a steady diet of negative thinking led you to feel crabby, while a rather more positive approach resulted in a happier outcome.
So next time you’re going through a rough patch, there may be sense in regarding it as something that’s happening to you rather than something that you are.
‘I’m a runny nose’ sounds rather ridiculous, just as ‘I’m depressed’ should, too.