People often come to me feeling confused about how they are feeling. They wonder, “Am I anxious? Depressed? A combination of both? Or something else altogether?” To me, this is not surprising.
How "emotion myths" get in the way.
Many of us have a limited language for our emotions (which can be part of the problem) and/or grew up in environments that did not value our feelings and emotions. Maybe we were told that we were “too emotional” or had parents that did not openly express their feelings. Most often, the answer is combination of things, and as a result, we go through life equipped with a few “emotion myths” that can make seeking help or opening up feel really, really scary.
Some of the most common emotions myths or beliefs that I run into in my practice are:
Having emotions or feelings is a sign of weakness
Strong people don’t let anything get to them
Emotions such as happiness, joy, and love are “good” emotions, while anger, sadness, or fear are “bad” emotions
There is a right way to feel, and a wrong way to feel
“If I don’t keep my emotions under wraps, I’ll lose control.”
“I should be able to just get over it.”
“If I let people know how I’m really feeling, they might think I’m weird/not want to be my friend/leave me.”
If any of the above emotion myths/beliefs ring true for you, the best thing you can do right now is to simply become more aware of their presence, especially as you start to do some internal digging around. Over time, this focus will help you to become aware when these emotion myths are creeping in and getting in the way, especially of you allowing yourself to be a human being—after all, humans have emotions, while robots do not (I don’t know about you, but I am pro-human!).
Most often, it's a little of both.
So, when it comes to the question of whether it is depression or anxiety you’re dealing with, it’s probably safe to say that you are probably dealing with a combination of both. In fact, it might be helpful to think of depression and anxiety as being on a scale, that is, sometimes our depression feels heavier (quite literally) while at other times, anxiety is the thing weighing us down.
Along the same lines, it’s also true that some people are more anxious than others, while others struggle more with feeling depressed. Again, as you become more attuned to your own internal experience—namely, the thoughts attached to anxiety and depression, how you experience these feelings somatically (in your body), and the ways in which you typically (and often automatically) respond to unwanted or difficult feeling states—this purposeful attention allows you to develop a new vocabulary for both thinking and speaking about your emotions.
The value of paying attention.
At this point, you might be asking, “That’s great and all, but what’s the payoff for being more aware of my emotions? I want them to go away!” Well, not only does it increase your emotional vocabulary, but scientific research tells us that “simply activating, expressing, and reflecting on emotion may have ameliorative effects for depression” (Leahy, Tirch, and Napolitano, 2013, p. 71). In other words, just talking and thinking about how you feel can help you cope with your emotions and combat things like depression and anxiety! Thus, contrary to what we’ve been taught, paying attention will not increase these symptoms, but actually help to turn down the volume.
The opposite happens when we try to suppress or deny our thoughts and feelings, meaning, we try to tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t be” thinking a certain way or about a certain thing. From my experience, this is the fastest way to pour gasoline on the fire of anxiety, depression, an urge to drink, etc.
Don’t believe me?
Try this simple exercise: For the next minute, DO NOT think about pizza. I’m serious! Don’t you dare think about pizza. Hot, delicious, p-i-z-z-a. Now, close your eyes and try to get pizza off of your mind.
How’d it work out? Chances are you couldn’t get pizza off of your brain. Sorry for yelling at you about pizza, but I think you get my point. When we tell ourselves not to think about something, or even worse, demoralize ourselves for having the thought or unwanted emotion in the first place, it only serves to turn up the volume on whatever we are experiencing.
The magic happens when we take a different stance. That is, when we simply observe the unwanted thought or emotion, like we’re watching a bear roaming outside of our cabin.
Eventually, the bear gets bored and leaves. It is probably more accurate to say that once the bear discovers there is no food, the bear moves on. Similarly, when we don’t “feed” the unwanted thought, urge, or emotion—meaning, when we simply watch it—it eventually fizzles out, allowing you to choose a different response.
The better you get at controlling your attention, the less likely you will be ruled by emotions myths, and more, will be able to pause before taking action. As the great holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In other words, as our mindfulness muscle grows, the less likely we are to respond automatically, making room to react differently. I cannot stress how important this observation is.
If you want to make getting sober or dealing with anxiety or depression easier, do as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Don’t beat yourself up for having thoughts or emotions. Instead, be compassionate and intently listen so that you may learn from what you are experiencing.
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