Image of a trans woman in bed with a dog, appearing as if she is depressed and anxious and not working.

What To Do When You Can’t Work Due To Anxiety And Depression

It’s a noble aspiration – a Scarlett O’Hara, “As God is my witness!,” fist-raised-to-Heaven determination – this whole notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”Push on!” “Get over it!” “Do whatever it takes!” And on and on the merciless cheerleading goes. But what happens when you can’t work due to anxiety and depression? What do you do? How do you rally yourself off the bench to go in for the win, even if the “win” is just another day on the clock?

Society celebrates the never-say-”die”-ers. They get guest spots on talk shows. And they “go viral” on social media. Maybe they get gold medals and big-dollar endorsements in the Olympics.

And why?

Because they push through…the pain, the inconvenience, sometimes even the common sense.

And, while these noble stories can be the stuff of inspiration, they can also be cautionary tales.

If we’re not careful, they can blind us to discernment (Your team is down 50 points with one minute left in the game. Do you keep cheering for a win?) and harden us to compassion – even unto ourselves.

Get help for anxiety and depression!

The ultimate goal if you can’t work due to anxiety and depression is to treat your symptoms and get back to work. 

Whether or not that means back to the same job, however, depends on several factors. 

If the job environment was the cause of anxiety and depression, consider looking elsewhere to work. 

But be aware of the possibility that the job environment, instead of being the cause of your anxiety and depression,  felt intolerable to you because of anxiety and depression.There is nothing wrong or bad about having anxiety or depression.

In fact, both are fairly common, especially since the Covid pandemic.

There is abundant support available, including therapy, medication, and support groups. 

There are also some new-ish treatments available, including transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and psychedelics.

Some depression symptoms are mood-based. Examples include sadness, lack of interest or pleasure, and a negative outlook.

When depression symptoms are more severe, the effects become more intense.

These intensified symptoms might present as very low energy, trouble focusing, and feeling extremely unmotivated. Your appetite and sleep pattern might also be negatively affected.

Biological changes, such as changes in hormone levels, can also occur with more severe depression.

As with any other ailment or debilitating condition, the ideal approach is always to seek help before your symptoms of anxiety and depression become severe.

However, if you suffer from anxiety and/or depression, you know how insidiously their symptoms can creep up on you. And trying to determine when to get help can lead you to risk waiting too long.

There is nothing to be ashamed of when seeking help. In fact, getting help is the responsible thing to do.

If you had a cardiac or pulmonary problem, you’d probably make an appointment with your doctor. You wouldn’t stumble to your car and drive to work in the middle of a heart attack (we hope)!

It’s no different if you can’t work due to depression and anxiety.

Here are several insights and suggestions to help you navigate life when anxiety and depression are along for the ride:

  1. Meet with your primary care physician, who then might refer you to a psychologist for therapy and/or a psychiatrist for medication. Some primary care doctors prescribe antidepressants, but many defer to their psychiatry colleagues.
  2. Isolating can be so tempting when you’re depressed or anxious. Staying in bed, keeping pajamas on all day, closing the blinds.

    But that just makes depression and anxiety worse.

    Instead, even if it takes all your might, get out of bed. Shower. Brush your teeth. Eat something for breakfast. Go outside for some fresh air and essential vitamin D.

    As counter-intuitive as it feels at first, the positive effects will be immediate.
  3. A technique I recommend when activities of daily living feel too hard is to conduct “mini experiments.”

    Check in with how you feel prior to getting out of bed (maybe on a 1-10 scale). Once you’ve showered, check back in with yourself to assess how you feel. Compare the two ratings.
  4. Practice focusing on the one thing you are doing in that particular moment. This concentration on “the present” is at the heart of mindfulness practices, which can have profound benefits for people suffering from anxiety and/or depression.

    Here is a simple example for getting out of bed when you really don’t want to move: First you sit up in bed. Check. Then you swing your legs around so they hang off the bed. Check. Then you put one foot on the floor. Check. Then the other. Yes! (And so on.)

    You are literally taking just one step at a time. The steps add up; and yet, focusing on the one step at hand feels less overwhelming.
  5. Sometimes listening to music is helpful. Same with journaling.
  6. In my experience, professional treatment is essential in order to feel better. Anxiety and depression, depending on their severity, tend not to just go away on their own, especially if they are so intense that you can’t work.
  7. If you can’t work due to anxiety and depression, you may want to consider applying for Social Security Disability benefits.

    Know, however, that there are strict criteria to meet, and documentation of ongoing treatment is required.
  8. For anxiety and depression to improve, you may need to make some lifestyle changes. Incorporating exercise, getting more social support, and/or finding a hobby are all “natural” and very doable examples.

    Sometimes getting a pet can help, too – as long as having another life to care for serves as motivation to immerse yourself in a new and positive rhythm of responsibility.

If you do not know where to turn, keep in mind that there are several hotlines to reach out to. 

Please keep the following two important hotline numbers where you can easily access them (in your phone, wallet, home, and car, for example). You never know when you or someone you know may need them.

The staff at NAMI are well-trained to answer questions on a wide range of mental health issues. Available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, they provide free information and referrals to treatment programs, support groups, and educational programs. NAMI also offers help for family members, information about jobs programs, and connections to legal representation in your area.

If severe anxiety is causing suicidal thoughts, call this free, 24-hour crisis intervention hotline. Counselors can help ease your anxiety. There are separate hotline numbers for Spanish speakers: 1-888-628-9454; the hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889; and veterans: 1-800-273-8255. You can also speak with a crisis volunteer live on their website.

The bottom line: Help is available, and hope is too. 

It all starts with taking just one step.

Dr Elayne Daniels is a clinical psychologist in MA. Her expertise is in the areas of eating disorders, body image, and High Sensitivity. Contact her here.

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