Never in the history of managing depression and anxiety has anyone benefitted from being told to “just snap out of it” or “just relax!”
Depression and anxiety can spiral to the point where they feel unbearable. To expect a person to be able to “snap out of it” is not realistic. And it’s certainly not helpful.
Actually, it’s unkind, insensitive, and uncompassionate.
If the person could switch gears on command, she would. But thoughts and feelings that rise out of depression and anxiety are just too intense.
The good news? There are effective ways to manage depression or anxiety if you experience a flare-up.
Before we discuss tips for managing depression and anxiety, let’s take care of some definitions.
What is depression?
Being depressed is like being emotionally colorblind. If you’ve ever seen videos of people putting on EnChroma colorblind glasses for the first time, you know how affecting the experience is.
A person who has viewed the world in muted, vintage-photo shades suddenly realizes what he has been missing.
Depression is the gray scale. It’s the muted, lifeless wavelength of life’s vibrancy. It negatively affects how you feel, think, and behave.
It causes sadness and/or a loss of interest in things you used to enjoy. You may feel bummed, blue, or irritable.
Feeling tired and unmotivated is common too.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion that everyone feels to varying degrees. For some people, anxiety can be intense, persistent, and very hard to cope with.
Physical symptoms (e.g. sweaty palms, increased heart rate) are often part of anxiety.
There are effective ways to manage anxiety.
The goal isn’t to permanently exile your anxiety, but to strengthen your ability to cope with it. Tips for managing depression and anxiety if you have a flare-up:
Flare-ups happen. They don’t mean you’re back to square one. In fact, a flare-up can be an opportunity to practice and strengthen techniques from your coping repertoire.
CONDUCT EXPERIMENTS to manage depression and anxiety.
Rather than committing to a definitive resolution or plan, try the “let me see what happens if…” approach.
Think of what you’re going to do to manage the flare-up as if you’re conducting an experiment.
For example, let’s say it’s nighttime, and you’re planning for the next day. You say to yourself, “let me see what happens if I get up in the morning, shower, and then eat breakfast.”
Nothing earth-shattering about that. People get up, shower, and eat every day.
The power and coping potential lie in the comparison to what you may be used to telling yourself. “I ‘should’/’have to’ get up early tomorrow, shower, and then eat breakfast. But I know I’ll be groggy and in a bad mood and will keep pressing snooze.”
The first case speaks to hope and opportunity.
The latter sounds like a mixture of a guilt-induced mandate and pessimism.
With the “let me see what happens if” approach, you agree to try something different. Just once. Just for today.
What often happens is the experiment goes well and continues the next day…and the next…and the next….
In psychology talk, the behavior involved (conducting “experiments”) in managing depression and anxiety is reinforced (you feel accomplished) and therefore strengthened (it continues).
CREATE STRUCTURE to manage depression and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety affect mood, energy, and motivation. Focusing can be super difficult.
You may be tempted to stay home all day and avoid people.
If you don’t know how your day will go, you may feel anxious.
A great suggestion is to find a regular routine. Don’t let depression or anxiety be the boss of what you do and when you do it.
If you don’t have much structure, impose some. See what happens if you add structure to your days. (Hello, tip #1!)
Plan out your day. Try to make your day full-ish but not overwhelming.
Sticking to a schedule will help you to function in your daily life.
For an added boost, incorporate social connection, fun, and time spent in nature. (All at once…or not.)
ELEVATE SELF-TALK to manage depression and anxiety.
Self-defeating thoughts fuel depression and anxiety, especially because we tend to believe what we think.
Most of us take our thoughts as fact, even when the thoughts aren’t true.
Negative self-talk is stinkin’ thinkin’ — thoughts like “I suck,” “Nothing will help me,”or “I’m going to freak out if ‘x’ happens.”
Your inner critic may also glom onto thoughts associated with depression or anxiety, leading to a downward spiral of “more and worse” of the same.
Negative, inner-critic thoughts make it hard to see that you in fact have choices in your life. The negative self-talk may mean you feel stuck.
I call automatic negative thoughts ‘ants’ for short.
‘Ants’ can appear quickly. Noticing them will help you mitigate their impact. And catching them and having a counter-thought or affirmation will help you emphasize your strengths.
GENERATE SELF-COMPASSION to manage depression and anxiety.
Self-compassion gets a bad rap by those unfamiliar with the concept. With thousands of studies demonstrating its effectiveness, self-compassion is a supremely useful tool and way of relating to yourself and others. It honors your (and others’) human-ness.
With self-compassion, you’re mindful and accepting that the moment is painful. You are kind and caring in response, remembering that part of the shared human experience is to be flawed, imperfect, feeling.
This reminder allows you to hold yourself in love and connection and to give yourself the same kind of support you would give a loved one. Self-compassion creates optimal conditions for growth.
Self-compassion practices are not meant to suppress or fight against depression or anxiety.
Try any of these self-compassion practices, with the purpose of experimenting with the various practices (thank you, tip #1).
Another idea is to incorporate self-compassion practices into your day (thank you, tip#2) and reassure yourself (thank you, tip #3) that an open mind is all you need.
Having a flare-up of depression or anxiety may be inevitable.
But life has a way of presenting the same challenges as opportunities for you to gain mastery of them.
Flare-ups, when accepted in this positive light, are simply opportunities to revisit techniques you know are helpful and to experiment with new ones.Dr Elayne Daniels is a private-practice psychologist in MA, specializing in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and/or eating disorders and working with Highly Sensitive People and people with body image challenges.