Treatment That Works: 3 Concepts That Can Help You Decrease The Effects Of Anxiety & Depression
As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since childhood (and probably found things to worry about while in the womb as well), I feel I’ve developed a very realistic attitude towards these conditions. Over my 41 years as a human -- and my 11 years as a counselor -- I’ve gained a lot of insight into what tends to be effective and ineffective in dealing with depression and anxiety.
Here’s the disappointing part: Even with the perfect amounts of medication, counseling, self-care, etc., I still feel depressed and anxious at times -- some days more than others. That’s no surprise, of course; all people experience the occasional instance of feeling depressed or anxious.
But here’s the hopeful, encouraging part: The anxiety and depression I feel at this point in my life are exponentially less intense -- and drag on for significantly shorter spans of time -- than in the past. This is because I’ve spent a lot of time learning more about these conditions and how they play out in my own daily life.
As a result, I have come to understand that some many most of my anxious and depressing thoughts are not a true reflection of how life actually is -- meaning that my anxiety and depression are causing me to misinterpret a lot of situations that are actually neutral or positive.
Note that the anxious and depressing thoughts are very convincing, though -- these thoughts can feel as real as actual intuition feels. Unwarranted anxious thoughts can feel exactly the same as life-saving intuition -- that legitimate, instinctive urge you get that tells you to remove yourself from a situation that is actually dangerous.
Unwarranted depressing thoughts may try to convince you that the world is a hellish place, that nobody likes you, that non-depressed people just don’t see the world as realistically as you do. Most of all, depressing thoughts convince you that you’ll always feel this way, that your condition will never improve. And just like anxious thoughts, depressive thoughts feel 100% real -- like there’s no doubt in your mind that this is "the way life is" -- like you’re seeing the ugly truth that other people just refuse to acknowledge.
All of what I've described here are thoughts / feelings I’m familiar with, and countless other people have told me they’ve had the same experience with their own depression and anxiety. Of course, each person’s specific thoughts will vary widely, but the patterns I’ve described above are widespread and pretty typical symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So here are a few big concepts that have helped me -- and many other people -- over the years:
Learn to challenge your thoughts. Write down the thoughts you’re having when you’re feeling anxious or depressed. Then take a good look at these thoughts (which may be easier to do later, when you’re not in the midst of whatever situation is activating the anxiety/depression) in order to evaluate how much of each thought is true and how much isn’t true. Note that this isn’t about finding ways to sugar-coat negative thoughts or act like there’s a bright side if there’s actually not one. This is about recognizing possible errors in your thinking, which may be distorting the way you view situations in life. If you want to work on this now, do an internet search for "Cognitive Distortions" or "Thinking Errors.”
Don’t believe every thought and feeling you have. This is a big one that has helped me a lot. In learning about mindfulness and meditation, I came across this intriguing concept that not every thought or feeling we experience has to actually mean something. That is to say, thoughts and feelings can sometimes be random or unexplainable. We can choose to read into certain thoughts and feelings, and we can also choose not to read into certain thoughts and feelings. It has helped me to visualize my mind as a blue sky, with thoughts and feelings floating by like clouds. Looking at the sky, I don’t have to focus on every cloud that floats into my field of vision. I can choose which clouds I want to look at closer and for longer periods of time as they float across the sky. For the clouds I choose to focus on, I can decide how much I investigate each one. Does this cloud look like a certain shape or object? Does it hold significance for me? The clouds I decide not to focus on will eventually just float out of my line of vision. So, not every thought that comes to mind needs to be investigated or focused on. Not every emotion automatically means something. Some thoughts are truly important to pay attention to, and some (many) are simply random thoughts that enter my mind and will eventually leave my mind if I don’t focus on them.
Recognize your own patterns. All of this information is only useful if you can see how it applies to your own life. Therefore, don’t take my word for it. Look at your own thought patterns, your own emotional patterns. Have there been times you’ve felt extremely anxious about a situation beforehand, but now that you look back at how the situation actually turned out, you can recognize that your anxiety was pretty overblown? How many times has this happened throughout your life? With depression, have there been times you’ve felt like things would never get better -- times you’ve felt particularly down? If those times have been followed by you eventually feeling less depressed -- or your depressed feelings subsiding completely -- then you know that your "it’ll-never-get-better" thoughts/feelings aren’t always true -- sometimes they’re just very convincing thoughts.
All of this takes time, of course. You don’t just read the three points above and suddenly feel better. Learn more about these concepts. See what makes sense to you -- what works to help you the most. Then be sure to gradually implement these concepts into your everyday life. You'll get better and better at catching yourself in these thought patterns so you can adjust your focus in those moments more often.