How To Untangle Your Depressed and Anxious Thinking
Gut instincts vs distorted thoughts.
A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
-- Alexander Pope
One Nasty Thing About Depression Is That It Is Self-Perpetuating.
That is, the symptoms are themselves a barrier to getting better.
When you don't have the self-confidence to advocate for yourself, you can't get the medical help or accommodation support you need. When you wake up fatigued and your body is sore, you can't get the exercise you need. When you feel overwhelmed and tired all the time, you can't connect with friends and loved ones. And these are some of the things that can really help.
A similar cycle occurs within your mind. One common piece of advice is to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. This form of therapy teaches you how to recognize the automatic negative thoughts that influence your mood, so you can work to change them. I've had some success with CBT and learning about my own distorted thinking.
But I've found it can be self-defeating, because of the circular nature of trying to identify my own distorted thinking.
An integral part of conditions like anxiety and depression is that your view of yourself and the world is skewed. If you are then attempting to identify and address your own thought patterns, you need something to compare them against. You need to have someone or something in your life that can act as a reliable and rational external anchor. This is tricky because your health and recovery depend on the health of that anchor.
And, this is one reason people with these conditions can become targets of abusive and controlling people. In the absence of a trustworthy anchor and a strong sense of reality (and self-awareness), it is easy to mistrust our own perceptions. We can easily miss warning signs of toxic relationships and environments.
It's hard to listen to your gut instincts if you've already become used to questioning your thoughts and feelings.
The Mind is a Powerful Thing, But Often Isn't Under Our Control.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.
I think about this a lot, as we see people who have everything being miserable, and other people capably live through awful times. For a long time, I had taken it to mean that if we control our thoughts we will be able to control our outlook on life. That is, whether we feel we are in heaven or hell. This may be true, but only to a certain point.
Fully controlling our thoughts is beyond the abilities of most mortals. So though the positive thinking and gratitude movement has benefits, it can't be the only support. There is definitely merit to it, but it has limitations.
Think of it like saying "everyone can build their own bookshelf." It could be technically true, but not in a practical sense. You need the right tools, physical abilities, material, instructions, and know-how, etc.
So it is with depression. Without the right knowledge, mental tools, teachers, and supports (like medication, as needed) dealing with your own mental health alone is just not realistic.
I now believe that Milton was not referring to the part of the mind that is under our control, but the immense amount that is sub- or even unconscious.
Perception Is Not Reality But Can Have Real Effects.
Even though we have to realize that some of our thoughts and feelings are not based on reality, we still have to accept and honour them.
This is something that's often taught in yoga and meditation. Suppressing and denying things never works. You can't address something if you don't admit it's there. Notice it, acknowledge it, and then try to gently let it go.
If it doesn't go easily, there's a reason, and that reason is something you should take a close look at. Is it coming from a worry about the future? It is regret or anger from the past? Was it a conversation you had that is still bothering you? Is it something in your present overwhelming or causing stress?
Sometimes, even if you do identify it as a distorted thought, you can make moves to address it. If a certain smell reminds you of an unhappy time, it is not unreasonable to avoid it, rather than challenge yourself to overcome that. (There's a type of cleaner that reminds me of high school, which I now just don't use.) Sometimes there are good reasons why something drives you crazy. You may never figure out why what the association means, but the effect it has on you is real.
Pick your battles, but sometimes the smallest changes can make life a whole lot more enjoyable. Life can be hard enough without taking on things we don't need to (even seemingly tiny things).
If You Need Professional Help, Few Things Can Replace That.
This might be the hardest part, learning how to trust your gut, and to tell your instincts apart from your distorted thoughts. Be very careful who you allow to interpret events for you. Work really hard to figure out what you think and what you like.
You can do plenty on your own, through learning about your condition, eating right, exercise, a little CBT, or similar work. Actually, in the end, a lot will depend on the work you do on your own. But that is only part of what needs to happen and ideally should be taking place with the help (or guidance) of someone with the right training for you. That person will be the anchor to hold you to reality. That person will help you untangle your mixed-up thoughts and feelings.
You can do it, but not alone. Do what you need to do. You are important.