Anxiety and depression are on the rise and the conversation of mental health around this is changing. Why does it seem like these are so much more prominent now? There is no simple answer to this as there are many enmeshed layers to the story of anxiety and depression in today’s society. However, there are definitely things you can do to help support yourself and loved ones in reducing anxiety and depression in your life.
First we need to be very clear that talking about anxiety and depression is not the same thing as talking about diagnosable Anxiety Disorders and Major Depressive Disorder. These require several specific criteria to be met and do have a more organic, neurobiological basis that requires careful diagnosis and treatment from trained professionals (e.g., psychologists, medical doctors, psychiatrists). What I am referring to in this article is the normalized experience of anxiety and depression that all of us experience from time to time. It is normal for the average person to have situational or circumstantial experiences of depressed mood or anxious feelings. If left unchecked it is possible that these symptoms may eventually lead to a formal diagnosis. My focus is in helping people to understand that there are things we can actively do to protect ourselves and to improve our quality of life.
Coming from an Emotion-Focused and Attachment-Based Developmental approach means I strongly believe that our emotions are valid and important in guiding us in life. Our emotions signal to us when things are, or are not, working and move us to evolve and grow. Even so-called “negative” emotions, such as shame or guilt, have a place and purpose in our lives. Guilt, for instance, moves us to do better next time and is a very normal and important feeling, particularly as a parent, signalling that we are in right-relationship with our children because we feel responsible for their happiness and well-being. At the outset of therapy I work with my clients to break down the stigma of “negative” emotions so that they can start to make room for them, listen to them, and ultimately surrender to them so that these emotions can do the work they were meant to do and leave room for more pleasant emotions in their wake. If what we resist persists, fighting or resisting these difficult emotions often only serves to make them store up, become more intense and perpetuate over time.
When I conceptualize anxiety and depression with my clients, it helps to break down these words and look at what they actually mean. Anxiety is an internal sense of alarm at perceived uncertainties or threats in the present or future. When we worry about things that are going wrong or can go wrong, we feel alarmed and are moved to caution. This is an incredibly adaptive response that served our ancestors well by keeping us safe and helping us to survive. Depression, on the other hand, is associated with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness about things that have not worked for us, or are not working for us (past and present). Again, these feelings move us to make changes in our lives so that we can feel empowered and hopeful again. So feeling uncertain and hopeless can make us feel anxious and depressed.
As mammals our response to our internal alarm system is typically first to freeze, then to run away (flight), and then, lastly, to fight (you’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response). Again, this is a highly adaptive response but sometimes can seem out of place, or irrational, in our modern world. Nonetheless it is important to understand our modern context so that we can know what to do with these feelings. Looking at our current society with all of the technology available to us and with the increasing movement toward globalization, we are more connected to one another in the world than ever before. These are wonderful advances that help us to feel more empathy and compassion for people around the world and for issues that are impacting people around the world - which can lead to new ideas and advances to help one another. The downside is that at times we are bombarded on the news and social media with endless stories of uncertainty about the future and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about our ability to fix it all. It can all become too much for the average person and we wind up finding ourselves in a state of alarm and hopelessness most of the time, causing us to react in ways that seem disproportionate to whatever it is we are dealing with in the moment.
So then what are our options for what we can do with all this uncertainty and hopelessness in the world? Using the freeze/flight/fight response in reverse can help to give us some tools that we can use to manage our environment and behavioural responses and alleviate some of these intense feelings.
While mammals typically respond to threats with a fight response as a last resort, I propose that we consider fighting as a first response in a proactive way to make a difference in the world. If alarm or anxiety is due to perceived uncertainties then part of its purpose is to move us to reduce uncertainty so we can mitigate the threat more accurately. Think about the issues that cause you the most uncertainty and worry - how can you become more informed on this issue so that you understand it better? Usually when it is left to our own imagination (and what we read on social media) things seem far worse than they actually are when we choose to educate ourselves more. News can be inherently good at catastrophizing in order to gain more readership - everyone loves a big story! Even when the stories are as bad as they sound, however, becoming more informed does reduce uncertainty and can inspire us to take action on these issues. Similarly how depression can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless, reading more about issues in the world will help us to discover what we can do to support causes that mean something to us, leaving us feeling more empowered (less helpless) and optimistic about real change (more hopeful).
While becoming informed and fighting for causes that are important to us should be our first priority as concerned citizens of the world, at times we can feel flooded by all that we are exposed to in the news and on social media. We are chronically exposed to more than any human is prepared to handle emotionally — technology is ahead of our own evolution! — and this can leave us feeling paralyzed and numb. So yes, there are times when a flight response to our alarming emotions is the most adaptive response in order for us to regroup and refocus so that we can be in a better position to take action in the future. When you are feeling flooded, try turning down chronic exposure with strategies on managing social media & news exposure for a period of time (or permanent). The world is not going to fall apart if you step away from the never-ending news feeds on social media or TV. The best option is to delete your social media apps and promise yourself a one-month break (or more). If major, relevant news stories happen, trust that the people in your life will keep you informed during this time. If completely abstaining from social media is not realistic for you, such as when there are work commitments or other important reasons, choose to unfollow news outlets and their affiliates. Also, unfollow those friends who post about things that make you feel alarmed and hopeless, or just generally make you feel bad about yourself. You do not need to unfriend them, just take a break by unfollowing them either temporarily or permanently.
Being overexposed to our internal alarm response for long periods of time can actually cause us to become overwhelmed and paralyze this adaptive response, leaving us feeling numb to the issues that may have been previously very important to us. As you can imagine, this state of defendedness, or perceived indifference, is not healthy for us as individuals (our emotions are supposed to move us, not stop us), nor is the world going to become a better place if everyone is walking around feeling numb and without compassion. At this point a freeze response can be seen as taking time to turn inward and listen to our innermost voice. Know your limits and set healthy boundaries in your life. Practice mindfulness and meditation as a tool for sitting with your emotions quietly and surrendering to them. Find playfulness again as another healthy way to release complex emotions, such as with creative expression and inherently engaging activities. Find your deepest tears and grief for the things you are up against that you cannot change. This is adaptation at work — on the other side of our tears is usually a place of peace and acceptance, which can leave us feeling inspired again. Discover this self-compassion first, like putting on your own mask on the airplane before helping someone else, and then your heart will reopen to compassion for others.
The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by your anxious or depressed feelings, take the time to listen to what they are trying to tell you. Thinking positively and feeling gratitude are wonderful things to incorporate in your life, but should not be used to distract us from what we are really experiencing emotionally. Take the time to listen to and surrender to all of your emotions - they are doing important work that serve our own adaptation to our modern world, creating resilience. Positive thinking and gratitude will have far more impact once we have drained ourselves fully of our difficult emotions first, and can leave us feeling even more inspired to make positive change in the world. Ultimately people are yearning to create meaning and purpose with their lives, and I would argue that much of this can be found by leaving the world better than we found it. Just make sure to put your own mask on first.