Mental Health Hacks Explained: The power of sad, unfinished things

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

As part of World Mental Health Day 2020, Dean Burnett and Cosmic Shambles asked people to submit their ‘Mental Health Hacks’, the tricks, techniques and approaches they’ve worked out, that help them deal with when their rebellious mind turns against them.

The best 5 Mental Health Hacks win a copy of Dean’s Audiobook Psycho-Logical, all about what’s going on in the brain when we experience mental health problems, and will have a Cosmic Shambles post dedicated to explaining how and why they could work, in the neurological sense. This is one of those posts.

When I was growing up, my mother was an avid fan of Brookside, the soap opera based in a small Liverpool close that saw more violence, death and destruction than the average war zone. It was always on in my house.

But what with my going to University in 2000 and the soap ending in 2003, it’s been nearly 2 decades since I’ve even thought about Brookside. But this run came to an abrupt end when I asked for Mental Health Hacks online, and Twitterer @kubsat said that watching Brookside helped her stave off the worst aspects of her mental health problems.


Anyone familiar with Brookside might be surprised by this. It was a show which regularly featured drugs, divorce, incest, racism, sexual assault, infidelity, death, murder, euthanasia, and helicopter crashes resulting in multiple fatalities. How could that possibly be reassuring or helpful when in the grip of depression-induced despair?

It does make sense though, when you’re aware of how the brain does things.

Firstly, the idea that if we’re sad we should only want to experience happy things, and that experiencing sad things when sad will only make things worse, is flawed. The belief that we should avoid negative emotions at all costs is a genuinely harmful one, and too endemic in modern culture as it is.

The reality of the situation is far more complex, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s fair to say that, with regards to processing and dealing with powerful emotions, the brain learns by doing. In a nutshell, the more a brain experiences an emotional state, the better it gets at dealing with it.

Of course, negative emotions, like sadness, disgust, anger etc. aren’t enjoyable. They exist at all so we can quickly learn which things to avoid. This may be part of the reason why negative emotions seem to affect us more than positive ones; we avoid them more, so they’re less familiar, and our brains aren’t so good at processing them.

We can get around this deficit, though, by experiencing negative emotions in safe, controlled contexts, like watching/reading/listening to sad things in the comfort of our own home. That may explain why misery memoirs, bleak TV shows and relentlessly sad music are so popular. They make us sad, sure, but in a way that’s safe (it’s not a real life experience), manageable (you can just put a book down, or turn music off), and impersonal (it’s not happening to you). This gives our brains something to work with, without triggering the drive to get away from it, and thus our brains become better at processing and coping with our own ‘real’ sadness.

Studies have shown that, counterintuitively, sad music does indeed help and improve our mood. Similarly, heavy metal listeners tend to be less prone to anger, not more. Their brains have a lot more experience in dealing with anger, so can handle it a lot better.

So, if you’re feeling down, and find that grim, sad, or otherwise ‘negative’ entertainments help you, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 


The other interesting point @kubsat makes is how helpful it was to have something to wait for, to look forward to be it the next episode in a dreary soap opera, the new film in a franchise, the next issue of a comic book in an ongoing story arc, or whatever. It doesn’t matter how mundane or inconsequential it may be; if you’re at a particularly low ebb mentally, having something unfinished and ongoing can make a great deal of difference.

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You see a lot of stories online about people being so low they become suicidal, but we’re stayed from going through with the worst possible decision because there was still something they hadn’t done or finished, even if it’s just a conversation with a stranger, initiated at the last possible moment.

This can be a surprisingly powerful factor, because among other things, the human brain really hates leaving things unfinished. Once we’ve started something, we’re often compelled to finish it, even if we have no external motivation to do so. A number have studies have had subjects perform a task, like a puzzle or similar, and then said the experiment is over before they’re finished. Most people seem compelled to complete the task regardless, even though it makes no difference to anything and they’re not getting compensated for it in any way. That they started it, and it’s not finished, seems to provide motivation enough for how the typical brain.

And if there’s one thing depression and similar mood disorders are known for, it’s depriving you of motivation. When depressed, it can be difficult to become motivated to pursue your career, to do your job, to make plans, to leave the house, to even carry on… at all.

Hence, if anything does provide you with motivation, then it should be embraced. And it doesn’t matter if it’s objectively small-scale or inconsequential. That may even be better; big things like life goals and ambitions require a lot of time and effort, which can be especially daunting when handling depression. But, going to the shop to get the next comic in the series, or turning on the TV for the next ep of your show? That’s a much small ask, and thus seems manageable. Because it often is.

Investing in something ongoing, something unfinished, can be a useful protective factor against mental health problems like depression, because the brain hates things being unfinished, and will often keep going long enough to resolve that. And that extra time can make all the difference.

Sure, it’s essentially exploiting a quirk of the brain for your own ends, but your brain is the one that turned against you first, so it has no right to complain.

Dean Burnett’s book Psycho-Logical is available from Audible. A print version is due in Feb 2021, via Faber.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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