Anxiety and depression are common burdens for human beings, and while they are painful, the good news is that they are very responsive to help.
Professional assistance in the form of therapy is often a great relief for people struggling with one or both of these two particular bugaboos, not only because a burden shared with another human is a burden halved, but because professionals can give you tailored support that really works to change your experience more quickly.
To use a metaphor, while you can learn to play an instrument on your own, it’s also nice to have a teacher to encourage you, witness you, and show you time-tested methods that have been used by generations of musicians before you.
You can think of a therapist as someone who teaches you how to relate to yourself in a healthy way – someone who cheers you on and helps you see yourself with more kindness. Therapists can educate us about how the human psyche works, what it needs to feel happy and safe, and through being compassionate and attentive to us, therapists also model what safe human relationships can be like.
But with or without professional assistance you can also learn to work with your own depression and anxiety on your own too. Here are my top 2 most important tips for you today.
1. Work with the body to release pent-up energy
Do some form of vigorous physical exercise. Both anxiety and depression have to do with the nervous system, and particularly with the trauma response (fight-flight-freeze) not being fully released out of us yet.
When we had experiences in younger life of not feeling fully safe (including not being fully loved unconditionally in our human condition), the body carries a residue of fear and/or anger. You could say the body has unfinished business around the topic of whether or not we will safely belong as ourselves, or whether we will re-experience something we experienced as a painful shock in the past, such as a threat to our right to belong or to our right to feel lovably and worthy just as we are. Fear lingering from past shocks turns into anxiety, and anger about crossed boundaries and unmet developmental needs turns into depression.
Pent-up trauma response energy exits the body when it is used up, and exercise is the best way to do that. So if you have a chronic tendency towards anxiety and depression, the best thing you can do for yourself is to make sure that you give your body a chance to work it out at the physical level. It is suggested that activities where you get to literally simulate the “running away” reaction – such as jogging, long-distance running, or a sport that involves sprinting, like soccer – as well as the “fight off your attacker” reaction – such as martial arts – can be especially satisfying and effective.
2. Work with your thoughts to see the distortions
Both anxiety and depression are characterized by distorted cognitions, in other words, they fill you with thoughts that are not strictly true, although they feel true.
Both anxiety and depression have specific interpretations of reality out there. By writing down everything you’re thinking while you’re in an anxious or depressed state, you can more clearly see the distortions for what they are.
You can identify cognitive errors, such as “mind-reading” (thinking you know what other people are thinking), or “catastrophizing” (imagining the worst possible outcome) or overgeneralizing: “people don’t like me”. Here is a list of some cognitive errors that most of us make when we’re feeling depressed or anxious: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/cognitive-distortions.pdf
Once you have written down your thoughts, you can make corrections to the record, changing your thoughts to more accurate, fair statements. Looking at your cognitions, you ask “Is this really true? How do I know it’s true? If it is true sometimes, in which situations is it not true? Is this factual or rather an emotional interpretation of things?”
Just seeing the distortions in our thoughts is enormously relieving, as we start to question the pronouncements of the unkind narrator in our heads. Over time, we’ll see that we can actually choose how we interpret life’s events.
Just as in a wildlife documentary, the voice of the narrator has so much influence on what we’re looking at. What if you replaced the doom-and-gloom voiceover with a warmer, kinder, truer voice, one who makes life feel easier to live?
To play with this, here’s an exercise: What do you wish that you believed, even if you don’t quite buy it yet? What voiceover would you like to be hearing over your life? Have fun with this 🙂