Anxiety and Depression: Tackling the Three Common Sources
To manage anxiety and depression, you need to tackle the underlying problems.
Posted Jun 23, 2019
We all know that a certain amount of anxiety and depression come from genetics and brain biochemistry. But for many of us, much of our anxiety and depression comes from a combination of several underlying sources: Specific problems that need to be solved, personality characteristics, and a lack of solid skills in managing the anxiety or depression when it arises.
Let’s break them down for each source:
Specific problems for anxiety
There is rational and irrational anxiety. Rational anxiety is tied to real problems: Your supervisor suddenly requests a meeting with you ASAP to discuss your work with one of your clients; your pediatrician has some concern about your child’s blood work and wants to refer your child to a specialist; your partner was driving to a conference and usually calls when he arrives, but he should have been there a couple of hours ago and you still haven’t heard from him.
Irrational anxiety arises when either your anxiety takes possible problems to the next level—that you assume you are going to get fired from your job and never find work again—or are driven by an overall hypervigilance and disasterization—that your cough means you have lung cancer, that your boyfriend is going to leave you because he seemed annoyed when you were 10 minutes late.
Rational anxiety requires active problem-solving. Irrational anxiety requires tools to calm your anxious brain down.
Specific problems for depression
A good deal of depressive feelings stem from situations we’re struggling with. One of the most common underlying causes is feeling trapped: in a job or relationship that you hate, in an addiction that controls you, with a chronic health problem that doesn’t seem to have a solution. Seeing no options, no way out, you give up hope, you become resigned, you become depressed.
Or there isn't one specific problem driving your depression but rather an accumulation of smaller and bigger problems that altogether create a depressing life: You have few friends and are chronically lonely; your everyday life has few positive outlets or interests and seems to consist of only work and sleep. You’re depressed for good reasons—your world is small and stressful.
Personality characteristics of those prone to anxiety
Usually, there is a hot-wired hypervigilance, perhaps as a result of growing up in a chaotic and/or abusive household where your only defense as a child was to be hyperalert, ever-aware of possible danger. It helped you survive as a child, but you can’t easily turn it off as an adult. The world continues to feel unsafe, and you’re still looking around corners, always braced for the worst.
But while some children combined their hypervigilance with an edgy, irritable, always-ready-to-fight posture, others moved in the other direction and learned to cope by adopting a good-kid, non-confrontational stance: They followed the rules, pledged to make their parents happy, did what was expected to stay out of trouble. Like hypervigilance, this coping style of avoiding conflict by accommodating all too easily continues into adulthood, and it takes little for those old little-kid feelings of getting in trouble to be triggered. As an adult they continue to walk on eggshells, worrying about how they are doing and what those around them are thinking. Finally, because the anxiety itself makes everything seem important, it doesn't take much for a person with so many masters to serve to feel emotionally overwhelmed.
But there’s more: the final log adding fuel to the anxiety-fire is self-criticism. The struggle to be good and please others can morph into perfectionism. The avoidance of conflict can lead to internalization, blaming, and anger at oneself for even small mistakes.
Personality characteristics of the depression-prone
Those prone to depression have a lot in common with those who are prone to anxiety, and it’s not surprising that they often go hand-in-hand. There is often the same good-kid stance which fuels internalization and self-criticism—holding in emotions, blaming oneself rather than others, the old Freudian notion of depression as anger turned inward. What is a bit different from those struggling with anxiety is that rather than continuing to work hard to please others, those with depression may have essentially learned to give up. There's a why-bother resignation that whatever you do won’t matter.
Lack of skills for anxiety
Having a toolkit of calming techniques and resources is particularly important if you are prone to irrational anxiety. Here you want to utilize deep breathing techniques, exercise, expressive writing, meditation, prescription or over-the-counter medications, mindfulness, tapping techniques, self-care such as hot baths or listening to your favorite music.
But having the same toolkit is important for navigating everyday life and anxiety: To calm yourself before that meeting with your supervisor, until you talk to the specialist, or until you finally hear from your partner and know he is safe and sound and settled.
But the key to utilizing any or all of the above skills is also the essential skill of realizing when your anxiety has hijacked your rational brain and is already leading you down that rabbit-hole of worry and worst-case scenarios.
Lack of skills for depression
The same first-aid skills used to reduce anxiety can also be used for depression. But the bigger challenge is overriding the why-bother attitude that keeps you from solving problems, overriding the self-criticism and low self-esteem that do a good job of creating an image of yourself as the forever loser. Your depressed brain is telling you that you need to feel better to act, when the opposite is true. The way out is recognizing when these negative, critical voices in your head are taking over, and then learning to act in spite of how you feel.
What to do
Recognize your state of mind and define the underlying problems
For both anxiety and depression, it’s important to know when these symptoms and ways of thinking are taking over your view of your problems and your life. I suggest to folks that they practice checking in with themselves several times a day and rating their mood on a 1-10 scale from good to bad. When it starts to creep up to a 4 or 5 it's time to start asking what underlying problems may be driving the anxiety or depression. It may be something as simple as a lack of sleep, or lingering worries about your supervisor's comment in your last meeting. By doing these check-ins you learn to notice the subtler shifts in mood and have the opportunity to act before they become overwhelming.
Come up with a plan to solve the problem
Once you step back and realize what is happening you’re half-way toward solving the problem. If it is a real problem—the talk with your supervisor, your child’s ailment, your boyfriend’s annoyance, your loneliness—come up with a plan.
The antidote to worrying, to feeling why-bother, is action, movement, doing something. Contact your supervisor and ask if there is a problem or prep for the meeting by gathering information about your work with the client; call your family physician and ask about the referral; talk to your boyfriend and see why he was so upset; enact your plan to reduce your loneliness by reaching out to more people even though you are reluctant to do so.
Work on your personality issues
Your critical voice is saying that the only way to feel better is to be more perfect; your little-kid anxiety is telling you that the only way to stay safe is to walk on eggshells; your depressed mind is saying that your efforts won't make a difference. Rather than allowing these voices to run your life, rather than getting mentally lost in the weeds of your latest transgression, you want to instead make your self-criticism or perfectionism, or accommodation and conflict-avoidance, your won't-matter attitude the problems you need to focus on in order to counter your anxiety and depression and run your life better.
Get help and support
Finally, you want to consider help and support. Learning to manage your anxiety or depression can be hard to do alone. Everyone can benefit from a cheerleader, a quiet, steady support, someone who can help you put things in perspective, who can help hold you accountable and keep you on task, someone who can help you learn the tools and skills you need. This can be a therapist, a life-coach, even a good friend or online resources and chatrooms.
Anxiety and depression don't have to rule your life. Step back, see what may be the source, and then act. Don't wait to feel better to do; do and begin to feel better.