In this little nugget of help, I want to share one way that Anxiety and Depression are linked, and I’m going to try to explain how our response to difficult emotions can lead to a pattern that makes us feel less joy, more sadness, and more apathetic.
So this video also fits under the category of stuff you do that makes you feel more depressed
So I’m going to start by sharing a story about one of my clients, I’ve changed some of the details to protect my client’s identity, but the gist of it is true.
I recently had a client come in who was concerned that he was feeling a little depressed, but most worrisome to him was this overwhelming feeling of apathy. He was no longer excited about his career, his field that in the past had been exciting and engaging for him, He was a Social work professor, and he loved the work, he loved the creative process of helping people and solving problems and reaching out to serve those who had few resources. He also had loved training new social work students, but because he was feeling so apathetic about his work, he felt bad even teaching them, he worried that he was setting them up to be miserable in their work too.
As we talked about what was going on, and ruled out a lot of things, I began to ask him about avoidance patterns in his life. Was he avoiding his life? Responsibilities? He said that he was really just putting in minimal effort into his work, and then as soon as he got home, he’d just veg out, watching TV for much of the day.
Avoidance is a big red flag, as it usually indicates a response to stress that makes things worse over time. Avoidance is different than relaxation. Relaxation, things like going for a walk, getting a massage, spending time with friends, actually turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that calms us down, helps us heal, turns on the immune system, and helps us feel more rested and relaxed.
Avoidance on the other hand, just numbs us out while we’re doing it so we don’t have to think about what’s bothering us, but as soon as we’re done watching a show or something, the problem and the stress which has just been on hold, comes back even stronger.
Avoidance is the one response that is almost guaranteed to make anxiety and depression worse…
Anyways, so I asked him about avoidance, and he said he was doing a lot of it. For him it was food and TV, but for other people avoidance may look like drugs, social withdrawal, gaming, spending too much time on social media or getting too obsessed with a hobby.
So I shared this analogy with him:
This piece of paper represents your emotional capacity, the ability to feel the whole spectrum of emotions. The right hand side of this paper represents your “positive” emotions the left hand side of the paper represents your “negative” emotions. (Now I’m using those terms in quotes because I don’t actually believe in positive and negative emotions, even painful emotions serve a purpose...but that’s not what this video is about...so anyways) Trying to shut down emotions and not feel them is kind of like breaking off the left half of the paper and throwing it away. SO I don’t want to feel sad, or hurt or disappointed, so I’m just going to tear this half off. Now we have half a paper. This paper represents your new range of emotions, the left half is your negative emotions, the right half is your positive, let’s get rid of the left half (tear) and put it aside. Great, now this paper represents your emotions…. Etc etc. You get the idea, when we try to cut off our negative emotions we tend to decrease our range of experiences to do that. We avoid love because it might hurt, we forget our dreams because we might fail. We avoid performing because it might give us anxiety. But the problem is, what we are really doing is cutting our Joy in half, our hopes in half, our range of emotions. Now we are left not only with a short paper of emotional range, with a very small window of positive emotions-but also this pile of little papers of negative emotions-failure, loneliness, and quenched dreams. We create misery by trying to run from pain.
He seemed to understand the analogy, and we moved on to talking about a few things he could practice to build back his emotional capacity, his ability to feel joy and excitement again. Things like less avoidance, exercise to get the blood pumping a little, writing a list of things that he used to enjoy about his work, etc. I asked him to tell me about a time that he really loved doing his work, to remember some experience that helped him feel that it was all worth it.
He really struggled to tell me about a time he enjoyed his work, it’s not that he hadn’t had them, but he couldn’t recall them. This is actually really common with depression and with trauma. With trauma survivors, they’ve experienced so much pain, that they’ve tried so hard to shut down their emotions, that it’s often much harder for them to talk about their hopes and joys than it is for them to talk about their worst memories.
And with depression it’s just hard to bring to mind the reality that you used to feel happiness. Anyways…
Right at the end of the session, I told him something I had written down in my session plan prior to the session, that it may be helpful for him to have a “Passion Project” to find something that he does for fun that reignites his passion for his profession. At this point he got pretty animated, and said “You know I had this volunteer project that was my passion project last year, we were helping women coming out of jail to find housing and work, and I was developing this program that I was really excited about. And, as he talked, I could see his eyes light up. But, he told me, then this guy who was working with me on the project kinda took over, he wouldn’t let me implement something that I wanted to do and that I cared really strongly about. So I just decided to stop caring, I told him, fine, you figure it out then. I’m still working on the project, but I’m just doing what I’m told and not trying to be creative or invested or anything. I just do it because I haven’t figured out how to back out of it.
Now I was excited, because he had just shared a perfect example of “Emotional Compression” how we shut down our ability to feel joy when we try to avoid feeling hurt. He had cared intensely about this project, then was upset when something didn’t go his way or got really difficult, so he shut down his “care” for the project. And when he couldn't be hurt, he also couldn’t feel joy.
When we shut our heart off to pain, we shut our heart off to joy.
You can’t selectively numb. You can’t say “I only want to feel the good emotions”
When you cut off grief, you can’t feel love
When you cut off disappointment, you can’t feel hope either.
It’s not what happens to us that makes us depressed but how we respond to sadness that makes us depressed or joyful. When something painful happens we have a choice.
So if we feel social anxiety hanging out with friends, and say, “I don’t want to feel that” so we avoid hanging out with friends, then we don’t feel so anxious <tear paper> but we also cut ourselves off from feeling the joy of hanging out with friends.
If something your spouse does hurts you, and instead of opening up, staying engaged, working through it, instead you turn away,you numb yourself off a little bit, you avoid him, you blame him or just spend less time with him, then pretty soon the marriage becomes a little colder. You’re not as open to being hurt, but you’re also not as open to joy or love.
The antidote to Emotional Compression, and one treatment for Apathy and depression and anxiety, is to expand our emotional capacity. To get better at feeling instead of just focusing on “Feeling better” This is a skill that can be learned. You can teach yourself to increase your ability to feel joy by also getting better at feeling disappointment. Strangely opening yourself up to pain, makes sadness and grief and anxiety more comfortable. It’s like a Chinese finger trap, the harder to try to escape, the tighter it pulls. And when you lean in to your emotions, you sit with them, you notice them without fighting or judging them first, then they don’t overpower you.
Now that being said, there’s a bunch we can do to get rid of pain and anxiety that we create, we can decrease depression by letting go of lies about ourselves and catastrophizing, and black and white thinking and other cognitive distortions that make us depressed or anxious. But when we’ve cleaned that up, we still need to have a response to painful emotions that in the long run helps us stay open to feeling, to love and joy, and that is the essential skill of Willingness.
I’m going to make a couple more videos on this topic, the skill of willingness. IT’s the ability to sit with emotions instead of run from them. But the basic idea is to allow yourself to feel vulnerable. Allow yourself to care. Let go of your rules that say “It’s not OK to feel sad, or mad, or disappointed” and instead say “I can feel sad, but still make good choices”
Brene Brown does a great job of describing this in her books “Daring Greatly” and Rising Strong, I’m going to end on one her quotes:
First she quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
“ The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
And then she says:
I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.
As you work to overcome depression and anxiety in your life, and to live a life of joy and love and hope and peace, May you be able to expand your emotional capacity by choosing to lean in instead of numbing out.
Thanks for watching and Take Care