Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can’t Be Answered With Just a Google Search

 

Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can't Be Answered With Just a Google Search | Is my anxiety a #firstworldproblem? Have I "suffered enough" to be depressed? What if my anxiety actually drives me to perform better at work or school? Thoughts on these tough questions + more in today's post!

In the year or so since my diagnosis with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I’ve had a lot of questions.

What exactly is GAD?

What causes it?

How common is it?

What are the best strategies for managing it? 

And in this Information Age, a simple Google search or a “Hey, Siri” can go a long way in shedding light on these types of data-driven inquiries. However, the experience of mental illness also raises many questions that are far too delicate, complex, and individualized for this method of answer seeking– questions that can’t be sufficiently addressed by examining “just the facts, m’am.” These are questions that require us to draw upon additional sources of knowledge, including personal and collective experience and intuition, to formulate an adequate response– and questions to which an “adequate response” may look a bit different for each of us and may shift over the course of a lifetime. These are the questions that come to mind again and again and tug on our psyches until we finally decide to face them.

Today I’d like to share three such “nagging questions” about anxiety and depression that have posed a particular challenge for me in my mental health journey. I’ll also discuss some of my thoughts related to each one in hopes of sparking an open, honest, and productive dialogue. I’d love to know if any of you have had these same questions, and if so, what insights you can offer. I’d also love to hear what other “nagging questions” you’ve faced in your life, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a mental illness. 

So let’s get this soul-searching party started.

1. Do I “deserve” to feel this way?

As most of us are acutely aware, our world is brimming with pain and suffering. Far too many of our fellow humans experience hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, debilitating illness, persecution, and other direct threats to their wellbeing on a daily basis–and in comparison, my worries seem pretty darn petty and meaningless and my “struggles” practically scream ease and privilege. What do I really have to be anxious about? Have I really suffered enough to warrant depression? Do I “deserve” to feel the way I do? Shouldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?

This is a difficult thing to explore from the inside without spiraling into guilt, shame– and as a result, further anxiety and depression–so I find it helpful to step outside my own experience and think about what I would tell a loved one if he or she came to me with these same questions.

I would first clarify that no one chooses whether or not to experience a mental illness. These conditions arise out of complex gene-environment interactions, not because people wake up one day and decide they want attention or special concessions. Some people do, in fact, behave in certain ways because they want attention or special concessions, but this is not mental illness.

Secondly, when we look at issues like poverty, we have to remember that just as mental illness isn’t directly caused by a lack of material goods, it isn’t prevented or cured by simply acquiring more of them. There are plenty of people who “have it all” and still suffer from anxiety and/or depression, as well as plenty of people who own very little and do not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue isn’t whether someone “deserves” to be anxious or depressed, whether he or she has “suffered” enough to warrant these experiences. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of guilt- and shame- inducing questions don’t serve to alleviate the anxiety and depression– in fact, they’ll likely make it worse, and no one benefits from that. On the other hand, owning and accepting one’s experience and taking the actions one can to manage symptoms and strive to lead a healthy and productive life is a far better response. The more we take care of ourselves, the more we’ll be able to give of ourselves to others and contribute to the betterment of the world–and everyone benefits from that.

2. What if my anxiety drives my success?

As someone who has undoubtedly experienced anxiety for most of her life (long before any official diagnosis was made), I can look back and see a lot of worry and stress–and also a considerable amount of “success” in terms of good grades, leadership roles in extracurriculars, etc. Which leads me to wonder, what if my anxiety was actually a key factor contributing to these achievements? What if being tightly wound drives me to perform better? What if I start taking steps to reduce my anxiety and find that I’m no longer “successful”?

Thankfully, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causality. (In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good chuckle, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations. Good news for Nicolas Cage fans and cheese lovers alike!) So just because I’ve experienced anxiety and success at the same time does not mean that anxiety directly causes success.  In fact, research supports what most of us already know from experience– that a moderate level of psychological arousal contributes to the best performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be motivated to do your best–but being totally freaked out will send you into overdrive and inhibit peak performance. 

It’s also important to examine how we’re defining success here. I mentioned things like grades in school and achievements in extracurriculars, but what about the even more important things, like relationships, health, and spirituality? I would argue that my periods of highest anxiety have most definitely not correlated with my “best successes” in these arenas. Just ask my family, my doctor, or, well, God. 

And finally, even if I did somehow determine that my anxiety was an important driver of  success, the real question is, at what cost? Is getting good grades or a strong letter of recommendation or an award or a scholarship really worth the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social toll that anxiety takes on us? Is it worth the headaches, the stomach pains, and the heart palpitations? Is it worth the paralyzing fear and constant feelings of scarcity–that what we have isn’t enough, what we do isn’t enough, what we are isn’t enough? Is it worth the opportunities missed because we couldn’t pull ourselves together and the joy lost because we couldn’t get out of our own heads and just be in the moment?

Now, of course, my answer would be no, but I have the benefit of hindsight. If you would have posed these questions to my overachieving high school self who hadn’t yet experienced the worst that anxiety has to offer, I would have been like, “Yeah, but…SAT scores/college applications/MY FUTURE.” So I think it’s something I needed to learn the hard way, otherwise, I never would have believed it. 

3. How will I ever “repay” my loved ones?

As I mentioned to above, anxiety always comes at a cost. During my time in grad school, it definitely cost me my ability to fully show up in my relationships and be the daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, classmate, coworker, etc., that I wanted to be. I didn’t set out to become a selfish, angry, or distant person, of course, but I got so caught up in my own thoughts and problems and stresses that that’s essentially what I became. My tank was constantly empty, leaving me with nothing to give to anyone else.

Now that I’m in a much better place, I often wonder how I will ever “repay” these individuals for the love and grace they extended to me during this dark time in my life. I use quotation marks here because I know that strong and meaningful relationships are “give and take” and that my loved ones aren’t expecting to be showered with gifts and praise in exchange for their support. However, when you’ve just come off a long period of take, this question doesn’t feel unreasonable. Furthermore, despite the massive improvements I’ve experienced, I still have GAD, and it’s a lot like walking with a tiny pebble in my shoe–it’s always there, but there are days I don’t really notice it, days when it’s just a minor annoyance, and days when, seemingly out of nowhere, it lodges itself in just the right place and pain shoots through my entire body. And during those latter days, I can be pretty pathetic–like lying on the floor unable to move pathetic. Cancelled plans pathetic. Call my mom and cry pathetic. But now I’m honestly kind of hesitant to go to loved ones, because I feel like I’ve already used up all my “pathetic anxiety time” with them for now. To continue with the financial analogy, I made some major withdrawals from my relationships during my time in grad school, and I haven’t rebuilt my savings yet. 

I don’t really have a great response for this one, because I’m still struggling to figure it out for myself. My loved ones have assured me that they’re not keeping score, and I’m learning how to believe them. I’m also learning how to take care of myself so that I can show up for them–on a day to day basis as well as during those times when they’re in a low place and need that same kind of unconditional love they gave me. 

For those of you who struggle with anxiety and/or depression: Have you asked any of these same questions before? If so, what insights do you have to offer? What other questions tend to nag at you? 

For those of you who don’t necessarily struggle with these issues yourself: There’s a good chance that you know and love someone who does. What insights might you provide if they came to you with these questions?

Advertisements

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World | In times of pain and division, we need real, authentic connection more than ever. Here are some of my favorite songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

I really, really didn’t want to write about the election, or about politics in general.

I felt that I couldn’t possibly say anything that hadn’t already been said–or take any stance without my position being misconstrued.

And since my blog isn’t about politics, I reasoned that it was acceptable, even advisable, for me to avoid the topic.

But then I found myself totally overwhelmed with pain, frustration, and hopelessness regarding the current state of our nation and world. It seemed that I was witnessing more nastiness and division–both online and in real life–than I remembered observing at any other point in my life. In so many other upsetting and uncertain circumstances, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, I had seen people rise to the occasion and come together–but this time, it seemed that our differences were only driving us further and further apart.

So I did what I so often do in these situations: I made a playlist.

It’s such a simple thing, maybe even a silly thing, but throughout my life, music has truly been there to help me muddle through my lowest lows, celebrate my highest highs, and live out every experience in between. I’m always searching for the perfect soundtrack to match every mood and moment, from driving around town to drinking coffee to decorating the Christmas tree, and this time was no different. So I compiled a list of songs that just seemed to resonate with me in these post-election weeks, that seemed to say what I’ve been struggling to put into words. Then I tried to figure out what they all had in common. And then it hit me.

In one way or another, all of the songs were about connection.

About supporting and sacrificing for one another.

About walking a mile in another’s shoes.

About turning enemies into friends. 

About persevering together in the face of pain, disappointment, and uncertainty. 

About our common tendency to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s not. 

About how love has always been–and always will be–the antidote to fear. 

About the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

And this common theme made so much sense, because based on my observations over the past few weeks, I believe that what we need the most right now is real, authentic connection–the kind that demands honesty, bravery, and vulnerability. The kind of connection that requires us to listen intently to others, even if we don’t understand–even if we can’t imagine ever understanding–their views. The kind of connection that challenges us to share our own stories and beliefs with charity and humility, free from any air of snark or superiority. The kind of connection that absolutely hinges on the fact that every individual–whether loved one, stranger, or reviled politician–is a human being with worries, dreams, strengths, flaws, and–no matter how unlikely it may seem–the potential for good.  

So I  wanted to share this playlist with all of you, because although this blog isn’t about politics, in so many ways, it is about connection. It’s about letting people into the messiness of our lives, balancing virtual and real-life interactions, practicing self-care so we can better serve those around us, and being open with our struggles and encouraging others to do the same. And such connection is especially important as we approach the holidays, which, for many of us, means spending time with family members and friends with whom we strongly disagree on a variety of issues.

I had hoped to write this post without any disclaimers, but given the sensitivity of the topic and the fact that some of you may not know me in real life (and therefore may not read my true intentions as readily), I want to make this very clear: I’m in no way trying to minimize the suffering or fear of any individual or group. I’m not implying that we can just bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and suddenly get along. What I am saying is that I know we can do better. We have to do better. It’s a broken world out there, so let us each do our part to heal and be healed.

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. 

Songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

 

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It’s Taught Me About Managing Anxiety

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It's Taught Me About Managing Anxiety | Inspired by fellow creatives, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and added gratitude journaling to my morning routine. And I'm so glad I did! But even though the practice has helped to reduce my anxiety and bring more joy to my days, it has also taught me that the relationship between gratitude and anxiety is more complicated than I originally thought.

I recently started a gratitude journal, and oh my gosh, you guys.

But before I launch into a discussion of the many benefits I’ve experienced, I should point out that I was initially pretty hesitant to adopt this practice. I participate in a number of online communities for writers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs (hey, a girl can dream), and even though it seems like everyone in these groups is constantly singing the praises of gratitude journaling, the whole thing sounded a little too “kumbaya” for me at first.

download-1
Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, friends, and write in our gratitude journals!

Plus, being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I was always concerned that I would, like, do it wrong or something. I puzzled over questions such as How many things should I write about each day? Should I use numbered lists, bullet points, or paragraphs?  Do I simply state the name of the thing I’m grateful for, or do I write a brief description of why I’m thankful for it? Can I repeat items, or do I have to come up with unique entries every day? And so on and so forth until I began to wonder how I manage to accomplish anything on a regular basis.

So in summary, between the perceived cheese factor and the Great Formatting Dilemma of 2016, I avoided jumping on the gratitude journal bandwagon for quite some time. More specifically, I avoided it until I started feeling like my morning routine was missing something.

I’ve discussed morning routines here before and how overhauling mine has improved my mood and ability to handle stress in so many ways. For example, getting up extra early allows me to savor some quiet time and gear up for a full day of people-ing (#introvertproblems), and engaging in an activity I love (like yoga or writing) first thing gives me the energy I need to tackle the not-so-fun items on my to-do list later on. But even though my morning routine has greatly improved over the past few months, I felt that it was time to take things a step further. Everything I was doing was very “me”-focused, and I wanted to incorporate something that would turn my attention outward a bit more–to others and to the world around me.

Then I read Kate Wilkinson’s post Why I Write a Gratitude Journal (And You Should Too), and I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon any longer. Kate helps creative entrepreneurs turn their passion into a successful business, so her take on gratitude journaling was very practical and actionable. I loved how she described the practice as a tool for “training your brain” to appreciate the goodness in your life right now–even as you strive to achieve bigger and better things in the future. Plus, she totally annihilated my lame excuses and resolved the Great Formatting Dilemma by providing a free downloadable template. I’ve since deviated from this outline a bit as I’ve grown in my own journaling style, but it was totally the jumpstart I needed to initially get going.

So now every morning, before I dive into writing or exercising or any of my other pursuits, I pause, pull out my notebook and pen, and reflect on three things I’m feeling especially thankful for that day. Sometimes these are Big Important Things, like my faith or my family or a recent experience that really moved me. Other times they’re silly little things, like the cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write. (Actually, most mornings it’s the coffee, but I force myself to write about something else instead so that my journal doesn’t turn into one long Ode to the Greatest Beverage on Earth.) 

download-2
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I also jot down my prayer intentions for the day, since my prayer life has definitely gone down the toilet this past year and this is part of my effort to fish it back out. (But that’s a whole other post for another day.)

And you know what, guys?

The results have been amazing. Team Kumbaya all the way. I’m considering making t-shirts, really.*

Taking just a few minutes to deliberately practice gratitude each morning truly impacts my mindset throughout the entire day. For one thing, I simply notice more of the blessings in my life–and for someone who’s constantly lost in the La La Land of her own thoughts, this is a big deal. Simply observing the many good things in my life brings me back to the present moment much in the same way that repeating a mantra does. Instead of being haunted by worries of what might go wrong, or enticed by daydreams of how much better things could be, I’m able to focus on what actually is. And more often than not, this reality offers a number of blessings, even if I have to dig through some pain and disappointment in order to unearth them.

Secondly, when I truly appreciate something, I tend to treat it with a bit more care and respect. This has proven especially important when it comes to the people in my life. When I consciously think about how grateful I am to know them–and, conversely, what my life might be like without them–I’m much more likely to seek ways to better love and support them, to truly cherish our time together, and to overlook small annoyances in favor of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

All of this kumbaya business got me thinking about whether starting a gratitude journal sooner would have benefitted my anxiety recovery process–or even prevented my anxiety from getting so out of control in the first place. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but what I realized is that the relationship between anxiety and gratitude is more complicated than a simple “increase gratitude, decrease anxiety” formula. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s possible to be so deep in an anxiety disorder that truly appreciating anything is nearly impossible, and other steps must first be taken to reign in the fear and apprehension and create space for gratitude.

Six months or a year ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I could rattle off all the “blessings” in my life like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I knew that I had a roof over my head and food in my fridge and people who loved me, and at least on an intellectual level, I recognized that for those things, I should be grateful. Yet thinking about what I should be thankful for didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety; in fact, at my lowest points, it only made everything worse. It made me feel both intensely guilty for being unappreciative and totally alienated from everyone else who was able to experience genuine gratitude. I truly think that I needed to get to a certain point in my recovery process before a practice like gratitude journaling had a place. I needed to take medication and get all those neurotransmitters back in order. I needed to see a therapist who could help me give my ugly thought patterns a much-needed makeover. And I needed to allow my exhausted body and brain to soak up some genuine rest. All of these steps have enabled me to feel something other than worried, isolated, guilty, and hopeless.

And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Have you ever tried gratitude journaling (or any other method of practicing gratitude)? Share your experiences in the comments below!

*Darn, it looks as though someone beat me to it.