I think I have been struggling with depression for about the last 6 months.
Actually, let me rephrase that. I think it has been longer, but I think I’ve only really acknowledged it here in the last few months.
This isn’t my first bout with depression, but I’m one who tends to run higher with anxiety. That’s been the case with most of my life. If there is going to be an issue with my mental health, it will probably be related to my anxiety. That feeling of worry, often manifesting itself in high levels of stress for me. It’s a feeling of being more on edge. Heart racing. Sweat. Being on high alert.
I’ve only really had mild levels of depression in my life, my greatest coming after the death of my mom when I was 11. But I think I was in such a panicked state of coping I hardly recognized the depression in myself.
Statistically speaking, if one is diagnosed with anxiety, there is a 50% chance they will also be diagnosed with depression — and vice-versa.
So though anxiety and depression are not new to my experience, this has been an interesting season of navigating them. I’m sure there are varied reasons for this, but one of them I believe is — because we all tried our best to navigate the unknowns of the last 18 months of COVID, and in order to just survive it, we probably pushed some things below the surface rather than address them. And now those things are finally coming to light. Maybe not for you…but if you are like me…then you know what I’m talking about.
But I also think we live in a culture that has historically not valued the place of feelings and emotions in our lives — so we just bury them and try to move on (which almost always leads to worse things). So it’s possible that the intensity around our mental health this last season may have been something we just saw as normal — meaning it’s something we have just always lived with, not recognizing that some of these things aren’t normal or healthy to live with.
One of my experiences as a therapist is that often when people come in to work with me, I point out how highly anxious they are. How stressed their lives are. And they look at me like, what are you talking about — this is how I have always lived life. They didn’t even know that this wasn’t normal. But I digress.
So wherever you are in this season, I would like to suggest three things that have been helpful to me personally. And three things I encourage everyone I encounter in my therapeutic and executive coaching work to do — heck, I encourage everyone to do this (friends, family and all).
First — Simply acknowledge your anxiety and depression. It does not have to be more complicated than, “I think I am struggling with anxiety right now.” Or, “I am feeling really depressed right now, and I wanted you to know.” There is something very, very powerful in acknowledging our struggles — mental health thrives in the darkness, and exposing it to the light by letting others know, or just saying it to yourself…is a very, very powerful move. Do not underestimate this.
You can do this with yourself by simply stating it in your head, or saying it out loud to yourself. An even better step in my opinion is to write it out on a piece of paper (or type it out), and then to simply look and read that statement. I love the beauty in being able to externalize our anxiety and depression onto paper, just giving us a little distance from it. Knowing that we aren’t defined by it, but rather is something we struggle with. You can also talk to a friend and let them know. Talk about powerful. And when you can express this with someone who can just sit with that — create a safe space for you, and not feel the pressure to fix it. That is a gift. And of course, I always highly recommend talking to a therapist if needed.
Second — Once you have acknowledged that you are either anxious, or depressed, or both, then it’s important to try and identify what is at the root of it. If we just stay at the surface level, what happens is we just end up trying to treat and manage the symptom, without really trying to understand the cause of it. I see this all the time. People just managing their anxiety their whole life, rather than getting to the root. Getting to the root is where healing takes place.
The biggest revelation for me happened about 5-6 years ago when my mentor helped me understand that anxiety and depression were not/are not feelings (with some nuance we could argue they are possibly feelings sometimes, but they are mostly symptoms), but rather the coping behaviors triggered by deeper things. So it’s not that I feel anxious, but I’m actually becoming anxious…I am literally doing anxiety, because something at a deeper level triggered that. Depression is something I do when something at a root level gets triggered. If we don’t recognize that, then we just end up chasing our tails and managing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, while never getting to the root of things, and finding healing. I’ve learned through the years with the work of gifted therapists, that my anxiety was rooted in my feelings of inadequacy and not feeling good enough, or that I measured up. That identification led the beginning of the real work, and to real healing. So whenever I notice now that I’m anxious or depressed, I know there is something way deeper going on.
What’s at the root of the anxiety and depression you are exhibiting?
Third — Anxiety and depression are opportunities for us to check in with ourselves. To ask deeper questions. To wonder what is going on below the surface of our lives. Anxiety and depression are reminders that something is incongruent, or possibly not integrated in our lives. That maybe there is some type of disintegration going on. They are warning signals that say “stop, pay attention to me”. And when we stop and pay attention we learn clues about what may actually be going on.
So for me and the work that I have done personally, and the work I’m about for those around me — is that I reframe anxiety and depression as opportunities to grow. It’s a simple reframe from something must be wrong with me, to I wonder what I can learn about myself during this season.
Do we still have to manage some symptoms, and identify the roots? Absolutely. But anxiety and depression often give me great clues about how I am living my life and how I need to change, pivot or recalibrate. I’ve written about this before in my book — and really any opportunity I have been given to speak, write or interact with others on this topic.
My favorite philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had much to say about anxiety, but nothing more to the point than:
Talk about a reframe.
Or in one of my favorite books (one I try and re-read each year), Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation:
After hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me eventually reclaim my life. ‘You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?
Amid the assaults I was suffering, the suggestion that depression was my friend seemed impossibly romantic, even insulting. But something in me knew that down, down to the ground, was the direction of wholeness, thus allowing that image to begin its slow work of healing me.
I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe. The problem with living at high altitude is simple: when we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may well kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple: when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get back up.
Very moving experience for Palmer, and something I think about a lot.
So if you find yourself struggling right now with anxiety, depression or both.
Know that you are not alone.
Acknowledge that you are struggling with them.
Work on identifying the roots.
Reframe them as opportunities to grow.
If you can work on these things I know you will find your way through the heavy times you might be experiencing.