Depressed? Anxious? Here’s What You Can Gain and Obtain

Most people who have more than their fair share of depression and anxiety are often seeking ways to decrease depressive and anxiety symptoms. In other words, they want to not be depressed and not have significant anxiety. If the symptoms are extreme or significant the person may start to avoid a lot of things, such as getting out of bed and going to places to that prompt panic attacks. Lifestyles can become restricted and the person may stop going to events or venues where they have the feelings they don’t want. Medications might be pursued, evaluated, and re-evaluated to see if they “work” or they “don’t work”.

If you are a depressed or anxious person, it might be worth considering what it is that you want more of, you would like to have, or what you value in your life. Instead of thinking what do I want to avoid start thinking about what you want to have more of in your life. What is it that would make your life more fulfilling, more engaging, more interesting, more desirable, or more alive? What is actually important to you? Sometimes people are so focused on what they are trying to get rid of they stop pursuing what they want.

Figuring out what you want more of ties in to your values, your energy, and your time. Are you sacrificing what is important to you because you are avoiding negative feelings? Have you stopped seeking activities that give you pleasure, fulfillment, obligation, a sense of contribution, or the opportunity to enhance an important relationship? If depression and anxiety interfere, this is a good time to evaluate what you might have to tolerate to go after more of what you want.

Sometimes, if people have more of what they want, their buffer against depression and anxiety can be tolerated more naturally. Some people get panic attacks at work, but because their job is important to them, they find a way to bear with them. Sometimes people get depressed when important things are lost, but because they have other important and meaningful activities in their life, the depression is bearable.

People who have fulfilled lives often have a wide range of things that give them pleasure, provide a sense of work/ mastery, invest in important relationships, and find new relationships when important ones end. Diversity and stability of the good things can help people shore up more resources when things go south and important jobs and relationships end.

 

 

 

 

Do you avoid what you want the most?

Going into the bookstore has always been a positive experience for me. I am always filled with wonder at the millions of things I feel I could learn when I visit a big bookstore. I get the sense that I could just pick up a book, read it, and acquire a new skill, craft, or some time of knowledge that wasn’t there previously.

A few years ago, though, I wanted to write my own book. I was working on The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants. I would go into a bookstore and I would have the sensation that there were so many delightful, treasurable, and competing ideas and books that it almost felt as if I would just become one more competing voice. That my contribution wouldn’t make a difference. That all the ideas were taken. That people had accomplished so much more than I would ever be able to accomplish. The experience of going into the bookstore, as exciting as it was, had the potential to tap into my anxiety and prompt me to stop writing my book.

Sometimes “good” stressors open up in our life. What we really want is at our fingertips. Feeling good, contributing our own ideas, finding our voice, speaking up, influencing the world, and getting out of a place of feeling trapped, helpless, or stuck becomes an option. It’s there in front of us. We have the choice to be powerful and make a difference.

Sometimes these options cause us to shy away, shut down, stop believing in ourselves, not think we are good enough, or feel as if we are undeserving. These types of beliefs get in our way of taking action, having a better life, and surrounding ourselves with things we really want.

Here is a question for you: What is the cost of sitting back, becoming inactive, or avoiding what you want the most? How might your life be different if you approached -and got- what you want?

Ultimately, I was able to finish my cartoon elephant book. My confidence may still vary when I am around lots of beautiful books, smart people, or fabulous contributors to society. But I know that by not giving up on my goals, people have enjoyed my cartoon elephants, given me positive feedback about my book, and have found the cartoon elephant book to be a fabulous resource in addressing their own painful emotions.

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

How group therapy works: Behavioral activation, personal relationships, groups, intimacy, connection, and growth.

Newer behavior therapies are looking at how people can change their behavior despite how they feel. The difficulty with focusing on behavior change is that most clinicians think that by focusing on behavior, private experiences such as thoughts and emotions are ignored.

The truth is, most people exhibit certain behaviors when they are feeling a certain way. For example, an anxious person might become overly chatty, focus on “safe” topics, avoid talking about anything personal, or present as very “intellectual”. Someone who is afraid of being disliked or judged might acquiesce easily, become a people pleaser, and become excessively compliant. Someone who is afraid of being excluded might become critical and judgmental in order to avoid the vulnerability of feeling more ostracized. Someone who has a hard time with intimate relationships might inhibit self-disclosure, refrain from sharing personal information, or lie to avoid the risk of discovery. Someone who has a lot of self-hatred might be dismissive of compliments, avoid positive feedback, or avoid rewarding activities.

The benefit of looking at how you behave when you feel a certain way increases opportunities for therapeutic interventions. All of the examples listed in the above paragraphs are behaviors that matter in personal relationships- and will likely show up in group settings. Being able to identify what you do when you feel a certain way is one of the steps to understanding what alternatives are available. Knowing where and how you get stuck is the first step to experimenting with how you can get yourself unstuck.

Here are some examples:

If you are anxious and tend to be chatty or intellectual, try experimenting with the following: Tolerate pregnant pauses, awkward silences, and situations in which there doesn’t seem to be anything to say.

If you have a tendency to be a people pleaser, try asserting yourself in minimally threatening situations. Ask for one thing and then change your mind at the deli counter or a restaurant. Experiment with introducing small things that may be somewhat different from the norms of your social circle.

If you tend to have prickly relationships and often feel threatened, try softening your facial expression, making gentle eye contact, focusing on what you have in common with others, and refraining from criticism.

If you struggling with intimacy, connection, feeling visible, or being “known”; or you have extreme social anxiety, you may want to consider small ways that you make yourself a bit more visible or known. If being the center of attention is too much, find ways in which you can start to voice your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in less riskier situations.

If you have a lot of self-hatred, practice being receptive to the positive things. Make eye contact when receiving positive feedback, allow yourself to feel the warm fuzzies, and treat yourself with kindness on purpose by doing things that are personally rewarding and enjoyable.

Part of identifying how services can be helpful is being able to observe and describe one’s own behaviors. This includes being sensitive to the impact it has on other people the consequence of how it makes you feel- as well as the ways in which current behavior simply doesn’t work. Being able to figure out what specific alternative behaviors you can do when you have the urge to do what you’ve always done is one of the keys in successful treatment. Increasing meaningful relationships and creating a fulfilling life takes work, feedback, sharing, and challenges. Changing one’s behavior often puts people in touch with emotional discomfort. What is the benefit? The benefit is that if one acts and behaves in a way that signifies being “better”, one will be less controlled by emotions and thoughts- especially thoughts and emotions that don’t “go away”! Taking risks is scary, but the cost of not making these changes is sometimes worse.

Three things you need to know about anger: Is it mentally “healthy”?

The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.

Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”

Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:

How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.

Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you?  What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.

What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.

What should you do with the elephant in the room?

The elephant in the room usually refers to the thing that’s not being said. Typically the thing that is not being said should be obvious, but it is not.

Things that don’t get said have a tendency to create a bit of stress! Consider what happens if what needs to get said doesn’t get said.

  • It becomes avoided
  • No one brings it up
  • You think someone else should bring it up
  • By not talking about it, it gets ignored
  • Ignoring it makes it worse
  • Ignoring it makes it so that others continue to do and say things that create problems or are hurtful

Generally the cost of bringing the elephant into the room is one in which people have to contend with something big.

If the big thing is in the room, this might generate anxiety or even anger. The participants in the room would have to tolerate a conversation in which stuff was out in the open, even if it meant dealing with things that are hard to talk about. However, if the elephant could be invited in to the room and managed, it might just be the case that elephants would eventually become easier to handle.

One quick tip for bringing the elephant into the room is to describe in an accurate, matter-of-fact way what you have observed. This helps lower defensiveness and doesn’t come across as an attack. Keep your tone of voice neutral and curious, and be ready to hear the other person out- even if what they are saying is hard to hear. Consider that the other party may find it just as difficult to talk about, and it may take more than one try to bring the elephant into a place where it can be seen for what it is.

Consider: What is it costing you to keep the elephant out of the room? 

Third wave behavior therapies, functions of behavior, depression, and dead conversations

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that you really cared about that ended up with them saying something like: “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t deserve that.” “I’m not worth it.”

As a recipient of this conversation, you may have been tempted to argue, disagree, convince, or encourage the person to think otherwise. While this strategy may have communicated a sense of caring or encouragement, it is quite possible that this conversation quickly fell into a polarized, deadened, undesirable re-occurring conversation. The difficulty with having these conversations is that they typically don’t end in any personal problem solving and both parties leave the interaction with a sense of dissatisfaction.

The “third wave behavior therapies” are a cluster of treatments that encourage people to look at the function and the context under which behaviors occur. For instance, if we were to think about the function of this conversation, we could start to ask a bunch of questions that would help us get at something a little bit more useful than a repeated and unsatisfying conversation.

Getting people to understand function is, in my experience, kind of hard. Function has to do with what purpose is this behavior serving. Context can help us understand under what conditions this behavior occurs.

Here are some questions that I might consider useful in considering the function of this type of conversation: What is the person wanting? How is the person expecting this conversation to end? Is convincing the responder that he/she doesn’t deserve something a way to avoid something difficult, not take a risk, do something that could change the situation for the better (but doing it is too scary)? Is the person seeking reassurance or connection? If the person wanted more of a connection with the recipient, what might be a more effective way to get it? What would be a better way of spending time together that would be more meaningful? What is the benefit, value, or use in convincing another person of one’s non-deserving status?

Third wave behavior therapies (or functional and contextual treatments) include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Three really wonderful books based on the “third wave” of thinking and can help people “get” more of what I’m talking about include ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris, Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time by Michael Addis and Christopher Martell, and Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson.

I will also add that, for my surviving depression teleseminar this coming June 3 (click here for more info), I’m going to help you take a closer look at the function of worry/ non-useful thinking/ rumination- and give you some strategies for figuring out what this behavior is all about.

Not on track with your New Year? Consider these 27 stages of change:

  1. Be reminded on some gut level of why you want or need to change
  2. Avoid everything related to changing
  3. Consider those who have changed
  4. Compare yourself to those whose lives are different
  5. Attack yourself for not changing
  6. Start to take the first step towards change
  7. Become overwhelmed
  8. Wallow a bit
  9. Consider the benefits of change
  10. Get motivated or inspired by others whose lives are different
  11. Be reminded on some gut level of how things are miserable for you now
  12. Ask for help
  13. Experience a sense of efficacy or encouragement
  14. Experience a setback or discouragement
  15. Try again
  16. Become overwhelmed
  17. Avoid people and places reminding you of change, at least for a while
  18. Give up
  19. Try again
  20. Get reminded of how miserable you are
  21. Approach everything that you’ve tried to avoid
  22. Get overwhelmed
  23. Take a small step and stick with it
  24. Notice the pros and cons of the small step
  25. Rant and rave to other people in your life about how things aren’t working
  26. Try to get help again
  27. Get motivated, take another step.

 

Don’t kid yourself.

This is hard work.

We’ve all been there!