The Brain and Its Stories

Hey everyone, it’s been a minute or two. How have you been? What have you been up to? Have you been coming up with all sorts of different ideas about what I may or may not have been doing in between posts? If so, you’re not alone, and that leads me to this month’s topic.

The brain loves a story. What do I mean by that? When we, as human beings, have a gap in information, we will inevitably come up with something to fill in that unknown. For example, I have a coffee date set up with my friend, Katie, and she doesn’t show up. My brain is going to start developing questions immediately. Am I at the right location? Is she running late? Am I early? Did we change plans and I forgot? Did she get in an accident? The list could go on and on and on. Now, if you’re prone to anxiety, your brain may take things a step further and begin to develop scenarios and stories for each of those questions in a quest to answer the unknown or “fill in” the gap in knowledge. For example, in response to “Am I at the right location” I may say, “Did we absolutely decide on Starbucks? I know I’ve forgotten or mixed up this information in the past, so it’s feasible that I could just be mixed up. You know what, I’ll check my calendar. Nope, this definitely says Starbucks. Maybe she’s at a different Starbucks. I hope I’m at the right Starbucks. Maybe I should text her to check.” That type of thinking can continue on and on ad nauseam. This is where some skills may be necessary to keep our thoughts in check.

Not only does our brain love a good story, but it also is a bit of a liar. Many times our mind, in response to the gaps, is going to develop the worst-case scenario and will proceed as though this made-up story is fact. It’s a beneficial survival skill, but we’re not trying to simply survive. I’m getting coffee! So we have to be smarter than our brain and tell it to STOP. Literally, we can use the skill of STOP (I’ve talked about this before with the Cookie Monster). STOP is also this month’s skill, so check it out below.

Comic by @crazyheadcomics on instagram.


Stop - Stop everything you are doing. Don’t even move.
Take a Breath - Take several deep breaths. Square breathing could be an option.
Observe - Look at what’s going on. What are your feelings and emotions?
Proceed Mindfully - Consider all of the information and act wisely. What will make things easier vs. more difficult.

adapted from DBT by Marsha Linehan

A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability.
— Daniel Kahneman

It can be easy to chase our thoughts into a cycle of worry and rumination. The good news is that with some practice, we can learn to look at our thoughts for what they are. Rather than just taking our thoughts and feelings as fact, it is often beneficial to take a step back and sort through what the brain is making up and what is the reality. Sorting of thoughts can be difficult, and it takes practice, so I’m going to give you another shortcut for the month. When in doubt about if a thought is a problem look for the following words, as they often signal the presence of irrational, or false, thinking. All, Every, Each, Always; No one, Never, None; Should, Shouldn’t, Have To, Must, Can’t, Would. If you see or hear yourself using those words, be wary, as they can be a red flag.

Until next time, keep your brain in check

Further Reading:
Your Brain is a Liar: 7 Common Cons Your Brain Uses - Christine Fonseca MS
Thinking Fast & Slow - Daniel Kahneman