Originally published on June 13, 2023
Searching for a Way Past Our Diagnoses
On many of my podcast appearances, hosts ask me: Is it actually possible to overcome anxiety and depression, or are we largely stuck with our diagnoses? Admittedly, it’s a tricky question to answer.
On the one hand, both afflictions are absolutely surmountable. That is, assuming we have the proper support, game plan, and perspectives. Yet, on the other, getting there is rarely a walk in the park. In fact, most of us will struggle quite a bit before we make the strides we seek.
Though there are innumerable reasons for that struggle, I’d like to highlight two of them in this post. That way, we can accelerate our progress or condense the time we spend wrestling with our psychological foes.
The first of these reasons corresponds to a term I often borrow from the computer world: pattern recognition. In a nutshell (and speaking on the subject at hand), it comes down to this: Until we spend a lot of time with anxiety and depression, we won’t have a great sense of what conditions are necessary for them to emerge or how we sometimes use our minds in ways that engender the same result.
That said, the more fear-provoking scenarios or spells of despair we endure, the more we’ll learn both diseases’ signatures and how they operate. Thus, given enough time, we’ll eventually develop the ability to discern when we’re running mental patterns that beckon our cognitive opponents.
To give you an example of this sort of thing, I’ll draw from a recurring incident in my own life.
Sometimes, when I’m nervous about an upcoming event, I’ll start thinking (okay, you got me — fretting) about how that affair will play out and, as a result, will begin breathing shallowly.
Early on in my battles with anxiety, I wouldn’t think twice about this change in my physiology; I’d simply sit on my couch, ruminate into oblivion, and try to push through the accompanying cold sweats, assuming that doing so would get me back to calm.
Yet, after enough of these ordeals, I finally conceded that this strategy wasn’t working.
It was something of an epiphany; I caught myself in the middle of one of these loops and said, “You feel so terrible right now because you’re thinking about scary things and forgetting to breathe. Instead of continuing to do so, get up, go for a walk, take some deep breaths, and set your mind on something else.”
This is pattern recognition in action. When we’re able to step outside of ourselves for a second and declare, “You’re doing that thing again, and it’s only harming you,” we give ourselves a chance to break out of our loops and stop our negative emotions in their tracks.
Until we learn this vital lesson, we’ll keep banging our heads against our proverbial walls and feeling as if we truly are stuck in our diagnoses.
The Importance of Giving Ourselves Something Good to Worry About
Despite the vast number of reasons we might struggle on the mental health front, there’s one more I want to cover before we wrap up this short post: the fact that our fear-filled minds love to worry — regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Now, I know this one may come off as fairly obvious, but I promise, there’s more to it than meets the eye. To prove it, let me tell you another quick, cautionary tale — this one from my second book (on managing depression).
From 2016 to 2018, I worked as an account executive at a software development firm. As with many sales-oriented gigs, that position was pretty stressful; each quarter, the number of deals I’d closed went back to zero, leaving me three months to hunt down new contracts and appease my boss yet again.
Though I liked chatting with customers, that job, as a whole, was not enjoyable for two primary reasons. First, even though my manager assigned and held me to a quota, my pay wasn’t tied to it. And second, the salary I did receive seemed modest compared to what some of my friends in similar roles (albeit at different companies and with slightly more experience) were taking home.
Thus, it felt like I was getting minimal upside ($$$) while still having to deal with all the downside (the quotas, stress, trepidation, deadlines, etc.).
In January of 2018, it really hit me that I was not satisfied with that position. So, I began telling myself that if I could just find a less stressful gig, my mental health would magically improve, and I’d be much happier overall.
Four months later, that glorious opportunity came knocking. In turn, I quit my job as an account executive and jumped back into the world of mobile app development. And how great it would be — or so I thought.
Though the first project I took on was entertaining, it was also, frustratingly, just as stressful as my sales job; our team quickly went over time and budget, so we had to work nights and weekends (and under-report our hours) to placate our client.
Thankfully, we shipped that app a couple of months later and moved on to a new one. And this one, I told myself, would finally give me the stress-free lifestyle I’d been craving for so long.
And, to tell you the truth, it kind of did — just not in the way I’d been anticipating; within a month of starting that subsequent assignment, it became clear to me that the client had very little for us to do. As such, I spent most days sitting at my desk, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for some work to come my way.
A few weeks later, that disengagement really got to me, and I returned to my anxious and depressive ways; for hours each day, I’d stew on daunting existential ideas such as death, climate change, the afterlife, and a whole host of other angsty subjects.
It was one of the darkest and most vexing periods of my life. I mean, I got this new job — the one I really wanted — and I was more miserable than ever. Just what the heck was going on?
It all came down to the idea that opened this section: the fact that, especially for us sufferers of mental illness, our brain’s default behavior is to brood.
What that means for us is, as tantalizing as it may sound to camp out on a beach all day (or get paid to sit at our desks and do nothing), it likely won’t be long in such situations before our obsessions take over and drive us into psychological hell once more.
Now, I know that may sound scary — almost as if there’s no way out of this trap. But I can assure you, that’s certainly not the case.
So, how do we avoid this seemingly assured path to suffering? By playing to the strengths of our psyches and giving them something good to worry about. I’ll explain.
When I was working on that angst-provoking second software project, my mind had nothing with which to occupy itself. As such, it did what it knows best: it came up with something to fret about and brought me along for the ride.
If I’d instead given it an assignment to fixate on (such as a fun prototype for my client), it likely wouldn’t have gone to such extremes — at least not at that moment.
If you’ve ever heard the term “monkey mind,” then you might know that this is one of the main things it alludes to — our psyches are like wild animals, constantly on the lookout for the next threat to our survival. And when there is no threat — but also nothing good to otherwise focus on — they’ll either find one or make one up entirely.
Thus, rather than let them drive us into boredom-fueled madness, we must do something similar to giving a crying baby a pacifier — we must provide them with a significant and hard-to-achieve goal or chore that will steal their attention and dampen their survivalist instincts for the time being.
For instance, we could begin training for a road race, enroll in a public speaking course / group, or start a small business.
Yet, no matter the task we take up, the objective will be the same: to help ourselves avoid the depths of our minds by playing to the strengths (and guarding against the vulnerabilities) of our psyches.
Of course, there is one catch here, and it’s the fact that, as we push ourselves into goals and endeavors that excite us, we may very well encounter anxiety. After all, who hasn’t been apprehensive when taking on a new challenge or pursuing something meaningful?
Yet, even if we do, we must remember: though disquiet is also quite painful to endure, we’d rather experience some nervousness in pursuit of things we enjoy or desire than face constant despair for seemingly no reason at all.
So, with that in mind, I’ll ask you: is there anything you have on your goal or bucket list that could serve as a robust and empowering distraction in your day-to-day life? Better yet, might that endeavor fit the “something good to worry about” bill and help keep depression at bay for a bit?
If so, start with that and see where you end up. It’s certainly not a silver bullet of a strategy, but it should at least provide a solid foundation in the mental health realm that then allows you to incorporate more intricate tactics from there.
Thanks for Reading! Looking to Learn More? Then Check Out These Helpful Resources
**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2023