In my last post I talked about how we really can’t trust our feelings (and our thinking) when we are in the grip of depression. Today I’m all about examples of what that means for what we DO when we’re fighting depression. And DO is probably the best summary of this entire blog post. Depression’s intense gravitational pull is to sit and not do anything – just simmer in our own juices, focusing on how we feel, how black things look – and we really don’t have to do that.

To have this conversation I need to discuss again the crucial issue of how thinking drives so much of what we do and feel. Depression doesn’t just “come out of no-where.” Depression is a RESULT of thinking – frightened, anxious, certain-that-we’re-screwed thinking.

This is probably one of the most fundamental distinctions we can make as human beings. We don’t really learn this as kids, and by the time we get to adulthood we unconsciously expect to be buffeted by emotions like a boat in the wind. We don’t understand that we have WAY more control over those feelings (and the Flight or Fight responses that come with anxiety and depression) than we think we do.

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Yeah – But It Seems Like I Can’t GET Control!

Control doesn’t mean instant control, however, and that’s especially true when it comes to taking charge of our thinking habits. I am reminded of when I was learning to drive a car. Although the primary witness to that challenging time in my life has gone on to other activities (thanks Mom – you were damn patient in that process), let me say that I wasn’t the world’s best novice driver.

Sure – I was in theory in control of the car, at least as far as I was the guy giving the engine gas, operating the brakes, turning the wheel, etc. To say that I was in CONTROL of the car, however, is a stretch, at least for the first few driving lessons…

And of course I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I didn’t take my courage in my hands and start driving. Because the other comparison to depression in this conversation was I was anxious about learning to drive – I didn’t really FEEL like doing it.

We confuse cause and effect when it comes to both anxiety and depression. We have this powerful temptation to want to first feel better, then act. And while getting over both anxiety and depression isn’t just about acting, it is impossible to do if we’re not engaged in the struggle, however that feels to us.

Let me say that again: we can’t wait to feel better. Carve that in stone someplace where you can see it. As I said in my last post we can’t trust our feelings about what to do when it comes to anxiety and depression. Even when it feels like we’re not getting control, even when the struggle feels uphill and pointless, even when 90% of our brain is saying just sit down, you’re wasting your time, you’re never going to feel better, etc…

OK, on to some examples of how anxious thinking can turn into depression –

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It Starts With Anxiety

One lady I know (we’ll call her Leah) has been fighting fears around money for a long time. She’s never been very self-confident about her ability to make or manage money (at least as far back as high school) but in recent years she’s seen challenges to her personal business (the recession, changing technology, etc.)

Yes, she’s definitely anxious. But she’s managed to keep her anxiety more or less at bay. That doesn’t mean she’s successfully managed his anxiety! She’s had bad bouts of chronic worry, has run away from client problems, has avoided seeking new business (what if they reject her? What if that means she won’t make enough money? Etc.) She isn’t married, and that scares her too – what if she can’t support herself and winds up being homeless?

She has done some therapy for her anxiety, and sought some help with her financial skills, but money and related issues scare her pretty badly, so she has never really been able to engage the work. And besides, shouldn’t she be able to do this herself? Isn’t is kinda lame to have to ask for help with these kind of problems?

In the last 2 years she crossed some invisible (to herself, at least) line in her thinking. What has seemed really challenging now seems impossible. She’s begun to believe that no matter what she does about work and money she will never get out of this fear, and now she’s fighting depression.

She’s not clear when the change happened. But she does know that it seems pointless. She’ll never get any better at managing money, she’ll never be successful at making money, she’s tried and it just doesn’t work for her, maybe she’s different from other people, not as smart, maybe she’s missing something.

Oh yeah, and in addition she’s convinced herself that her depression is physical/some kind of brain problem. Which in turn has convinced her that she will NEVER really be better, ever again…

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Any of this sound familiar? Let’s pull this apart.

1) She was fighting anxiety for a long time.

2) She was missing the skills to deal with her anxiety successfully, although she struggled with it and even sought various kinds of help for it.

3) She crossed some threshold in her thinking that convinced her she would NEVER get free of money worries – and in that instant she started wrestling with depression as well as anxiety.

4) Poorly informed about cause and effect she is now searching for a physical solution to her thinking problems-converted-to-crisis in her mind.

She reports she is depressed. And she is. She feels trapped. But depression didn’t come out of nowhere. It came directly from her fight with anxiety.

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Another Example

Martin is a guy who has been depressed longer than he can accurately remember. He is 48, but says he feels more like 70. He fights pretty fierce social anxiety, and is also very worried about growing old. He has tried dating services, singles groups, social clubs, work activities, but he always feels like an outsider. He felt that way even in junior high school, and remembers thinking before he finished high school that he would probably never find any close friends or people to love.

He has tried various medications for his depression. A therapist has told him that he is really dealing with anxiety, but he is convinced that his family’s history of depressed people (his Dad, his uncle, his older brother) are the real problem. He’s just a “depressed person.”

(And isn’t it interesting to hear that he grew up in a house where other people were already fighting depression? They couldn’t possibly influence his thinking, right? What beliefs did they pass on to little Martin, way before he was conscious of that process?)

He sees the future as bleak, without love or friendship. Never mind that his co-workers have repeatedly asked him to parties, dinner, drinks after work. Never mind that he’s a smart guy who doesn’t look bad either. And never mind that he spends all of his time when he isn’t at work sitting in his condo near downtown, watching TV or movies, hating his isolation but convinced it can never be better.

Perhaps most tellingly he often says that if he only “felt less depressed” he could make a move, change his job, try again to meet some people and build some relationships… I also want to mention that he has terrible personal standards – how he should look, how he should act, what he can and can’t say, how he should manage his feelings – and the combined weight of all those beliefs makes even simple social interactions seem, well, really stressful…

In this example we can’t as clearly point back to how he first began to believe he couldn’t comfortably deal with people. But we KNOW that he was anxious well before he was depressed, and is anxious still, although he denies he is fighting anxiety. He insists he is fighting depression, and until he isn’t depressed he just can’t move forward.

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What To Do With This Information

1) Understand that depression stems directly from anxiety. Anxiety comes first, and is the root problem.

2) Realize that it CAN’T get better if you sit and agonize over your depression. You have to get to the thinking that is causing it in the first place. That can be damn challenging, both because that thinking is probably scary to you and because you just don’t feel like doing it. Doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got to do that work.

3) You’ll probably need help to do that work. You might need therapy support. You will definitely need whatever friends and family you can rally to the cause – and you will need to face your fear of admitting your “failure” with depression and anxiety to do so. You might need the aid of medication, at least at the start of the journey, if you can find meds that work for you (and that hunt might itself take some time, effort and dealing with various side effects.) Go get whatever you can get. Defy the crap voice in your head that you have to do it alone or that real grown-ups don’t need help. Nonsense.

4) Expect it to be draining, tedious and frustrating, even discouraging. In other words, to feel like you’re feeling RIGHT NOW in your fight with anxiety and depression – only that you’ll actually be doing something about it.

5) Expect it to be slow at times, especially at the start. That doesn’t prove depression right. This isn’t pointless. It is very, very useful. It will simply take time and patient work to pull apart and change the thinking that led to anxiety and depression in the first place.

6) And for the love of Mike, stop sitting there – whatever your depression tells you to do. Take the walk you don’t want to take. Make the meal you don’t want to make. Wash the bathtub (it probably really, really needs it!) 🙂 Sitting won’t help you. Nursing your depression can’t help you. Challenging your thinking and sorting out what that thinking convinces you is true is what will help you.

No Time Like The Present

Last recommendation for this blog post: don’t put this off. It won’t be any easier tomorrow. Start. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do this work 24/7. (We who fight anxiety are SO GOOD at black or white, all or nothing thinking…) But get up and start.

What have you got to lose? However hard it seems to do from where you’re sitting it sure has to beat any more waiting for your life to begin/return, yes? You can do this work. It doesn’t FEEL like it – but you can.