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Where There’s Stress, There’s a Story

guy near bench

I tried something new with my most recent vacation. I planned to spend seven days in Portland, visiting a friend, riding bikes, eating artisanal donuts and drinking craft beers. But I divided this week into two, and in the middle, spent an entire week at a silent retreat.

The basic idea of a silent retreat is to see how quiet the mind can get when you stop feeding it entertainment, conversation, and daydreams. Instead, you notice what’s happening inside you and around you, and come back to that when you get distracted.

Essentially you are meditating in some posture or another—either sitting, walking, eating or going to the bathroom—for the sixteen hours each day that you’re not sleeping.

It’s hard to convey just how aware a person becomes after spending more than 100 hours in meditation over seven days. The world becomes incredibly quiet and simple. You can hear eight different sounds at once, and never lose track of what direction each is coming from.

At first you’re mostly noticing the obvious things: bird songs, the breeze, the weight of doors you use, the feeling of your clothes, the creaking of floors. But then you start to notice subtler phenomena.

Your thoughts really slow down, and at a certain point become obvious, like somebody saying something in a quiet room. The mind becomes so quiet that you notice the tiniest ripples in your feelings. Our experience is full of some very subtle feedback that normally gets drowned out—tiny gut feelings, emotional residue from thoughts about certain topics, faint attractions or aversions to tiny details like the way your food is sitting on your plate. 

Normally our minds are so abuzz with layers of dialogue, memories, fears and ruminations, that we barely notice we’re thinking at all. Our everyday experience is so saturated with ongoing idle thought that it essentially becomes invisible. We’re like David Foster Wallace’s proverbial goldfish—after an older fish asks him, “How’s the water today?” he quietly asks his friend, “What the hell is water?”

When thoughts are as clear and far-between as they are on retreat, you learn what your mind is actually like—the events that send it spinning, the places it goes when you’re not watching, the trouble it gets into. You start to see the billiard-ball effect a single thought can have on you, how easily it sets off emotions, how those emotions shape your moods and attitudes.

With so little noise, you can start to map out the mechanics of the everyday preoccupied mind—how thoughts make you worry and ruminate, and how unnecessary most of the resulting stress is.

How stress is born

One afternoon I was doing walking meditation along a gravel path, and a fellow retreatant was doing the same thing, only at a much slower pace. Just as I passed him, I had the thought “Walk on, brother!” or something similarly well-meaning (but probably unnecessary).

Almost immediately, my mind came up with the similar phrase “Carry on my wayward son!” Another moment later the drums and guitars kicked in, and I was privately rocking out to the Kansas song of that name. Seconds later, I was reliving a memory of being a teenager, at a party where that song was playing. My friend had disappeared and I was too shy to talk to anyone new, so I sat quietly on the couch for four hours, avoiding eye contact, feeling like an idiot.

Similar memories flashed through my head, and I felt really bad. This kind of painful shyness characterized my teenage experience, and much of my adult experience, and it’s never pleasant to remember.

In the next second, I recognized what had happened. I was only about six or seven steps down the path from where I had the initial thought. In less goldfish than ten seconds, I had gone from total awareness and equanimity, to a well-meaning thought, to an irrelevant memory, to a painful memory, to a familiar kind of existential rumination, and then—thankfully—back to awareness.

If I hadn’t been on retreat it might have led to a dark mood, maybe a day-long surge of social anxiety. I would probably stay home that night or maybe treat myself to a pizza or something—and have no idea why. All of this because a thought I had happened to remind me of a 1970s rock anthem.

I witnessed this pattern again and again: a thought would come out of nowhere, it would remind me of something, then something else, then something else, and eventually land on something personal and often painful—a memory or imaginary future moment where something is at stake, something I need to do, or avoid.

This is what the mind is doing all the time. The mind is an extremely powerful connect-the-dots machine, constantly and rapidly making associations between what it notices, triggering any one of a zillion memories or projections about the future. All of these scenarios include you of course, and often there’s something at stake, some fixation on having things go a certain way.

Essentially, the mind is making stories: sequences of events, past or future, where you stand to gain or lose something. You imagine—or re-imagine—a date, an interview, a conversation, an argument, a Facebook comment thread gone awry, a future performance evaluation, a call-out from a family member who, it turns out, noticed you took the last Popsicle.

Naturally, a certain desperation grows around the needs you face in these stories, which creates real stress, usually over nothing. Is it actually useful, or merely addictive, to re-enact a not-so-great speech you gave last month, for the sixteenth time? Or continually imagine a confrontation with a driver that cut you off on the way to work this morning?

These stories are just a natural by-product of the human mind’s amazing ability to make connections between similar thoughts, but they reliably generate real stress. This free-association ability isn’t wholly a bad thing, and is in fact necessary for making plans and learning from our mistakes. But most of the time it is completely useless idle thinking, just random sequences of imagined events we endure and suffer for absolutely no benefit.

Find the story, leave it unfinished

You don’t need to go on retreat, or even meditate at all, to begin to address this problem, although it is almost certainly the most direct way.

It’s enough to simply recognize this basic relationship between stress and stories. Virtually every time you experience stress, it’s a response to a narrative in the mind, a story about something you feel you need to have happen or prevent from happening.

When you notice stress rising at some random moment, find the story. It can probably be summed up in a sentence.

What’s the story? That the IRS will find an error in my return and send me a bill I can’t pay. That everyone will hate my article when I publish it. That I’ll go on a Tinder date and both of us will realize how boring I am. That the country will collapse if a certain candidate gets elected.

Many times a day, we end up ruminating on stressful, unresolvable narratives for completely random reasons—such as remembering a bloody Kansas song—yet somehow it feels like important work is being done. Ostensibly, in each of these mental eddies, you are “preparing” for life by imagining or re-enacting encounters with co-workers, muggers, law enforcement officers or prospective bosses.

But there’s no real decision-making happening, no useful preparation, just another unplanned session of self-flagellation, as we demand more control and certainty from our experience than is ever going to be available to us.

Where there’s stress, there’s a story, and you probably don’t need to hear it. Or tell it.

Whether the story is true or not (or may become true) isn’t important. You may still have to live through an actual audit or a nervous first date, and there is some uncertainty there, some real possibility of pain or difficulty. But even if the topic is decidedly relevant to your life, that doesn’t mean you need to tell or re-tell this story right now, or that it will help you in real life.

Just leave the narrative unfinished—not that they ever can be finished—and go back to what you were doing before the storytelling started. That’s where life actually happens.


Photos by Jeffrey Pioquinto and C Watts

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Zoe July 11, 2016 at 2:19 am

I wonder sometimes if a part of us allows this stressful thinking just to feel easy relief when the potential situation that’s bothering us doesn’t actually happen in the end…
Thanks for your article, David. I was feeling stressed and annoyed because of work (although the “problem” is kind of solved) and I really needed that to put things into perspective… and I think I need to go meditate now ;-)

David Cain July 11, 2016 at 8:22 am

We are definitely grasping at something with each story. Some kind of resolution that isn’t actually there in real life. I’ve found myself replaying conversations in such a way that they feel better to me. It gives you an imaginary moment of catharsis here and there, but the cost is it drives you nuts.

David September 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

Great article. Thanks.
However I am convinced there is a purpose to this behaviour of the mind, and the narrative is needed and should not be repressed or ignored.

Just as pain is needed to get our attention and point out that there is an problem and some part of our body is not functioning as intended, so it is with the narrative.
The narrative is there to bring to our attention the areas of our life we have suffered wounds in and have not yet dealt with.

To ignore them is to remain wounded , overly sensitive in these troubled areas.

I say embrace the narrative, but this time renew your mind with the correct solution. That way when a similar issue occurs you will have the tooling to deal with it.


John Norris July 11, 2016 at 3:03 am

Have you read Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is”? She asks “who would we be without our story?”. She teaches that we can question our stressful thoughts, see that they are usually not true and so find peace. That’s an abridged version :)

David Cain July 11, 2016 at 8:25 am

I do remember her ritual of questioning thoughts, and in Buddhism there is a similar way of both speech and thoughts: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful? Often it’s none of those things.

The mind produces too many thoughts to question individually though. Often it’s enough just to notice rumination when it’s happening, and toss it without even looking into the content, trusting that we will always have a chance to consciously reflect on issues that warrant it.

“Who would we be without our story?” is a great question, and it’s also one of the central concepts in Buddhism. They posit that there is no self really, just an impersonal subjective experience that includes a story of personal history, among other things.

Isabelle R July 11, 2016 at 5:17 am

It’s exactly the way my mind works. So thank you for sharing David , it helps me with fighting rumination !

Lisis July 11, 2016 at 5:39 am

I spent most of my life with a fairly self-destructive narrative inside my head. Then, in 2008, I read the book “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” and it made me realize that I had been repeating a false narrative to myself constantly since my early teens.

It made the case that all sorts of things can be accepted as true through a simple message repeated often… Santa Claus, all religions, Nazi propaganda, “you’re worthless and no one will ever love you”, etc. The story is always simple, but the power is in the repetition.

Long story short, I had to recognize my false narrative and re-write it. I needed to create a new narrative (one in which I didn’t suck), and repeat it often… as often as necessary until I came to believe it as true. And so I did. And lo, and behold, my life completely turned around. I didn’t suck, and life didn’t suck, and I just wish I’d discovered that trick 20 years earlier.

So, I guess I’m saying, leave the traditional narrative unfinished… but consider re-writing a new plot twist for it.

Anne July 11, 2016 at 5:55 am

What a great story, thank you for sharing it. I would like to try that, too.

Can you post a link to the book you’re referring to? There are several with that title.

Lisis July 11, 2016 at 1:07 pm

Wow! I just found it on amazon, and it’s super expensive now. I paid about $10 for it back then. I wish I hadn’t scribbled all over mine, I’d sell it today! ;)


Lisis July 11, 2016 at 1:09 pm

I tried posting the link, but it didn’t take (probably thinks I’m a spammer). It was: “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Reasoning Processes in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Related Disorders”. It’s crazy expensive now, though… maybe you can find one on ebay?

Anne July 12, 2016 at 10:20 am

Thanks for the link, it worked for me. Yes, the book is really expensive now. I’d buy yours even with the scribbles!

What you wrote about is something I’ve heard before but never actually practiced consistently. The time is right for me to do it, though, as I finally have a consistent daily practice. I’ve written my new narrative and am now incorporating it into my practice.

How long did it take you for the repetition to work?

David Cain July 11, 2016 at 8:32 am

Just noticing the patterns in the self-talk can go a long way. I found my thoughts kept landing on fears of loss and rejection. My mind is constantly trying to head off this particular kind of pain by seeing it ten steps down the road, but by doing that it just creates it over and over again.

Anne July 12, 2016 at 10:22 am

You’re right, as usual, David. My mind works the same way. Out of curiosity, when is your birthday?

Your plans for Portland sound exactly right for that city. Did you go to Voodoo Donuts?

Mike July 11, 2016 at 5:41 am

Here is a short story explaining why I got stressed and angry at work today:

Today I returned to work after seven days of sick leave owing to health issues relating to influenza. Boss calls surprise one-on-one meeting on the morning of my return. I then spend 40 minutes listening to my boss telling me he wants me to work harder and longer hours.

As you might imagine, my mental narrative following this meeting was along the lines of “if I can’t work longer into the night and increase my output I will be made redundant and I won’t be able to support my family.” “I will then be a failure in other people’s eyes because I won’t be able maintain the socially accepted goal of successful hard working family man”.

However, the truth that I need to introduce into my thinking is that I only need to put in effort that I can sustain. And that labour laws in my country make it very difficult for employers to dismiss otherwise hardworking committed employees.


David Cain July 11, 2016 at 8:34 am

The mind moves so quickly — any time I think about resumes, job interviews, or performance evaluations, I am within seconds thinking about being homeless, asking family members for money, working casual manual labor jobs. I kind of knew that, but this recent retreat showed me how rapidly this happens. Zero to catastrophe in seconds.

Jill S July 11, 2016 at 7:53 am

This is a thoughtful and helpful post. I really needed this insight today… thank you!

Melanie July 11, 2016 at 8:05 am

Loved this. Thank you.

Julie July 11, 2016 at 8:52 am

Brene Brown talks about this story process in Rising Strong, so I wanted to share that.
And also my own situation. I had a day or two of silent retreat, inadvertently, while on vacation. It was glorious. The anxiety has crept back into my life since I’ve been back, and it’s crazy painful to wake up feeling the way I do. (It’s my job; it’s toxic.) As soon as I can arrange for a big increase in freelance hours, I am GONE.

David Cain July 11, 2016 at 10:36 am

I wish you the best in your escape from The Man! A toxic job is a neverending source of stress and dread.

JV July 11, 2016 at 9:58 am

Whenever I catch myself doing this I am reminded of an irresponsible parent letting their child wander the streets unsupervised.

Herbert July 11, 2016 at 10:22 am

Leave stories unfinished may sound a bit neurotic, don’t you think? I mean, I got your point and it’s great, but how can I separate not-feed-a-thought from a simple and Freudian repression?

David Cain July 11, 2016 at 10:39 am

I think we have been oversold this Freudian idea of “repression”, as though every line of thought is important and needs to be examined or else we’ll somehow go insane. In my experience, trains of thought go FOREVER unless they are interrupted by something, or the thinker becomes aware that they’re just ruminating senselessly.

One litmus test is “Are these thoughts leading to a decision?” If so, get to the decision, make it and move on. If not, it’s probably completely habitual, pointless thinking. I believe the vast majority of our thinking is just pointless, habitual dot-connecting.

another Julie July 11, 2016 at 11:39 am

There is a wonderful saying from the southern U.S. that sums this up in a sentence: “Don’t borrow trouble.” Great post– thank you.

Mark Kandborg July 11, 2016 at 4:11 pm

I thought this said “Don’t bury trouble”… which has it’s own wisdom.

Delia July 19, 2016 at 7:29 am

My mother (from Liverpool) always says, Don’t trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you

Katia July 11, 2016 at 11:40 am

David, thank you for putting into words the effects of a silent retreat. Although I haven’t yet had a chance to take part in such an experience, I do my best to practise mindfulness as I go about my day, in addition to my formal meditation practice. I tend to move between a state of clear awareness and one in which I weave stories in my head, analyze and over-analyze past experiences, weaving narratives. In truth, I love both states. As a writer, I love to live in my head, but I also am drawn to the clarity that I find with my awareness practices. Yet, too much awareness and clear-headedness, and I start to feel that I’m missing something, that stories stop coming to me. It’s a curious conundrum.

David Cain July 12, 2016 at 8:26 am

Heh, there is really no danger of ever being too clear-minded. The stories will never stop, but as the mind settles they emerge with much more clarity. I find it much easier to write and come up with ideas when I’m meditating a lot.

Kim Forman July 11, 2016 at 1:37 pm

I love this piece of wisdom about looking for he story when stress arises. A moment of clarity can save a great deal of pain.

Thank you.

David Cain July 12, 2016 at 8:27 am

Thanks Kim.

Linda July 11, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I like the idea of recognizing the story and moving on. I wonder tho if there’s a way to channel or divert the “dot-connecting” for a better result — for a positive or peaceful response. Wouldn’t it be amazing to hijack this “talk” for good, and how might we do this?

David Cain July 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

Much of the time it is for good — we do need our minds to connect dots like that, or else we’d never learn anything or know anything. The problem is that the mind does this incessantly, and without our awareness the vast majority of the time, and it quickly lands on unresolvable needs and cravings, causing us stress. After spending time in meditation, this dot-connecting becomes less rampant and more conscious, making it easier to make use of for learning and insight, without such a danger of creating needless stress.

Karen July 11, 2016 at 6:09 pm

Great pearls of wisdom here. I am reminded of my favorite teaching from Eckhart Tolle on story. He speaks to a situation in which someones soup is cold. Instead of simplying informing the waiter that the soup is called and can it be rewarmed (the truth), we create a story of, how could this be done to me, I haven’t the time for this, they did this on purpose, etc., etc., etc.. Life is so much easier when we don’t create the added drama of story and just ask ourselves what is the simple truth. Thank you!

David Cain July 12, 2016 at 8:32 am

Eckhart Tolle’s books are full of examples of exactly this — hopping over the sensory facts of the moment, right into a self-involved narrative about who’s at fault, and what should be happening instead.

Dollar Flipper July 12, 2016 at 10:25 am

Stop trying to get me to focus on what’s within my control! I love agonizing over what-if’s. It’s crazy how much we fear being in our own head. “Give me another Facebook or Reddit post so I don’t have to think for myself!”

I’ve wanted to do one of those long silent retreats for a while. The hard part now is that I have two young kids. It also terrifies me a bit since I love to talk. All the time.

David Cain July 12, 2016 at 10:40 am

I love it too, and I didn’t realize quite the extent of that. Self-talking about what-ifs and reliving past conversations is really really addictive. I knew I liked to do that but had no idea how it nearly dominates my life. The more I notice I’m doing it, and refrain from continuing, the more emotionally stable I am and the better life is.

So I think the fact that it is addictive and attractive gives a person all the more reason to challenge that fear of stepping away from it. I hope you find a way to arrange a silent retreat sometime soon.

Stephan July 12, 2016 at 4:14 pm

I’ve spend the past years reading a lot of books on mindfulness and occasionally meditating (usually, as soon as I stop reading books/blog posts about it I quickly keep forgetting my meditation practice, weird. I’m currently trying hard to stick with it.). I find it a bit disheartening that even somebody as deeply into this like you still have to fight their lizard brain. From what I read the brain will always do its thing and you’re just supposed to get better at noticing it. Is that right? Did the meditation and retreats improve the way you handle your brain chatter a lot, can you objectively tell the difference?

Dan July 12, 2016 at 9:07 pm

Coincides nicely with a just recently republished Nautilus essay:

This Is Your Brain on Silence

David Cain July 21, 2016 at 3:33 pm

This looks great, I will check it out.

cam July 13, 2016 at 10:24 pm

swallowing loudly
everyone notices
I am ashamed

David Cain July 21, 2016 at 3:31 pm

This I can relate to

Michael Baker July 14, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Since I became aware of the thinking mind—which really is a constant stream of dialogue and imagery—I have noticed that one thought often leads to another. There are times when I will start feeling a certain way, perhaps anxious or horny, and I will retrace my thoughts to find the origin of how I got to that feeling. It’s extremely empowering to be aware of our inner world.

This article is A+ David. I love the way you delve into deep subject matter and describe is so perfectly. Thank you.

David Cain July 21, 2016 at 3:32 pm

Thanks Michael. That retracing can be helpful sometimes, because it shows us the kinds of topics that drag us into fretting and worrying. This retracing becomes much simpler to do on retreat, because you catch yourself thinking only seconds later a lot of the time, when there’s still only three or four links in the chain.

Pavan July 20, 2016 at 10:54 am

Great blog here, David. I’ve also realized that our thoughts during these conversations with ourselves tend either towards extreme happiness or extreme sadness. I’ve been wondering whether this is our brain actually trying to pump out as many hormones as possible, and this is an artifact of our thrill seeking behavior. Otherwise the narrative could have been neutral, and then we might actually have been making some decisions.

On a different note, loved your philosophy about not compartmentalizing people into theists and non-theists. What we atheists must realize is that every religion is just an ode to the human condition, and hope that we solve today’s problems soon enough for everyone to be born atheist.

David Cain July 21, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Yeah, I’m not sure why we have that tendency. I think the mind has evolved to grasp at the important, so it keeps searching for something that bumps up the adrenaline. This keeps us constantly reviewing and ruminating on needs and worries, which might aid our survival in a savannah-like setting, at the expense of our moment-to-moment well-being.

I like your take on religion. They ALL have to do with addressing the human condition, that’s exactly it. It’s just that some of them came up with their methods under some really different social structures and metaphysical beliefs. Nobody is born believing in God though :)

Miss Sunshine July 21, 2016 at 11:34 am

I just need to tell you you have an amazing writing gift and I am glad you use it that way. Thank you sweet soul and keep doing your mad work down here please. Stay blessed. One love!

David Cain July 21, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Well thank you Miss Sunshine!

Melissa Pollard Helms August 24, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I enjoy what you have said here, and I am certainly marinating on it. I am wondering if there isn’t a sense of “by-passing” in this? I am wondering. I literally don’t know. Yes, you are right once the mind is seen clearly with its own agenda of having nothing to do with reality that is good and true. But there are certain things that present themselves for healing or resolve. And in my experience they keep coming up until they are resolved or “seen” through. It seems as though there might be a middle ground. Of opening and allowing the old issue to arise without believing it again or giving it the same energy as it was once given and with that awareness the aspect dissolves. I hear it called, making sense of our past. So with present awareness the “trigger” or root experience can shift and its power over the mind be absolved. There is a fine line between healing (I use that term loosely,its more of an effortless shift) and being consumed.
I don’t know if this makes sense or is relevant to your point.

Melissa Pollard Helms August 24, 2016 at 12:55 pm

And I see that both might be true. Sometimes we need to see we are being duped by the mind and other times a shift in the brain might be welcome.

Melissa Pollard Helms August 25, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Hi again! Sorry to be leaving so many comments but I have had time to marinate on your words here. And I get it! I can allow one event tail spin me into a suffering, “whoa is me” situation or I don’t. Just stop it. Stop going down that road. So its a neural pathway that was created somewhere along the way. A trail or rabbit hole for the mind to leap down and then,poof, reality is gone. Awesome insight. Thank you. This was great to experience. and to realize.

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