To rid ourselves of negative emotions like anxiety and depression, a lot of time goes up in smoke. Much of what we do has no lasting impact. We simply continue to struggle. Anxiety and depression keep getting “the best of us”.
But what if we’ve got our focus on dealing with anxiety and depression all wrong?
What if anxiety and depression themselves weren’t our immediate problem?
Imagine if the real problem we faced was actually our thoughts and beliefs about the experience of anxiety and depression, in the moment. We all have potentially unconscious processes in this area. In the psychology profession, we call them “meta-cognitions”. An example of a “meta-cognition” is our thoughts and beliefs about the experience of anxiety and depression in the moment.
Let’s look at this example more closely.
We might have beliefs that feeling anxious or depressed is a weakness. Anxiety or depression may also make us feel we’re defective as a person. Those feelings might also in turn trigger ideas about how “things will never change”.
Now, it is quite clear that these feelings lead us to a form of suffering. Obviously, we attribute this suffering to the anxiety and depression we’re feeling. It seems a certainty to us because, “where there’s smoke, there must be fire!”
If we believe that, our only course of action is, often desperately, to do whatever we can to try and get rid of that experience of anxiety and depression in that moment.
We seek various forms of distraction, avoidance, or similar management techniques. More often than not, unfortunately, these “solutions” don’t work in any lasting way to relieve us. They give us temporary relief but fail over the long-term to make permanent change.
In the above example, we’re pushing a lot of weight up a very steep hill. It’s like trying to swim with a lead vest on. We’re trying to change the very experience of anxiety or depression. In the process, we’re ignoring the possibility that the experience of anxiety or depression might have a deep functional evolutionary purpose.
But what if we looked at the machinations we have about those emotions and then try to creatively intervene differently?
Let’s look at another example to see what I mean by this.
I often find it interesting to watch two people sitting side-by-side on a roller coaster. One person looks like their life is about to end. The other is having the time of their lives.
In this example, both riders experience the same physiological reaction. They have the same increases in adrenaline, cortisol and the intense rush of emotion. By excluding their emotional reactions, we wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Analysing physiological reactions only, we wouldn’t know who was having the time of their lives and who was feeling like they were about to die.
What’s going on here? Well, there’s certainly something else going on other than the actual experience itself. It’s not purely the physical experience that’s causing the emotional reaction. There’s something else creating the “suffering” for our poor friend who feels they’re about to die on that roller coaster.
Let’s take another example. Let’s say, for example, that yesterday was a bad day for you. You felt extreme anxiety, all day.
Now, I would hazard a guess that, if I asked you to describe your day in detail, you’d have quite vivid descriptions to give. This is certainly what I’ve experienced talking with many people who are dealing with anxiety or depression.
Perhaps you’d say something like this,
“I wake up feeling nauseous and I didn’t want to go to work.”
“After breakfast, I went into work.”
“I was OK for a couple of hours. But just before lunch, I had this real spike in anxiety. I just needed to go for a walk.”
And so on, you’d describe in quite minute detail the unfolding of your day …
Now, let me ask you a different kind of question.
Imagine, every so often, during the day, you get an itch. Now, I ask you, “How many itches did you have yesterday? When did you have them?”
I suspect that you’d have no idea whether you did or did not have an itch, yesterday. Even if you did remember having an itch, yesterday, you’d struggle to tell me how many times.
Why is this? Well, it’s because you don’t have any strong measure of meta-cognition or emotions related to itching. Anxiety or depression, on the other hand, you do.
A simple itch can arise in the middle of a conversation. We’re hardly aware of it. An itch is experienced in the same way that we experience the act of turning on the light switch while talking on a mobile phone. You’re not paying any attention to what muscles you’re using. We don’t “think” about what finger we use to press the light switch. It just happens, almost unconsciously.
With anxiety or depression, however, we do remember. The course of the day, its peaks and lows, is remembered in minute detail.
Is it not possible that this “reality” for you is, to a large extent, because there is a high degree of “wrongness” for you in the experience of that anxiety?
“Where is he going with this?”, you might ask.
Let’s consider another approach to emotions we don’t want to feel, like anxiety or depression.
What if we slowly worked on trying to change our relationship to the emotions and thoughts we have about anxiety or depression?
Imagine undoing our sole focus on trying to work out how to prevent those emotions from arising.
Give it a try. Start small. Start today.
Of course there is more to it and we can only touch the surface in this post. We’ll talk a lot more about this approach to dealing with anxiety and depression in upcoming posts. Simply subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll deliver them fresh to your inbox. You’ll also get the heads up on our upcoming book, Optimal Mind.
Until then, get a head start by slowly working on trying to change your relationship to those emotions and thoughts about anxiety and depression.
If you’d like to work face-to-face with us, you can also come into our Sydney office.
We can even work with you on anxiety or depression via Skype, if you’re elsewhere in the world.
Just let us know via the contact form.