Episode 73: Honest And Raw: Our Thoughts On Anxiety And Depression
This week we're practicing what we preach. We're living out the part of our mission statement that reads "we aim to help [women] feel understood and united, to feel part of a community that sheds the weight of isolation and loneliness" as we discuss the top ten things we wished people knew about anxiety and depression. The news has been laden recently with stories of people who seemingly "had it all together" but took their own lives all the same. While we can't attempt to know everyone's stories, what we can do is share our own in an attempt to create space for more people to share theirs.
I’ve hesitated to talk about mental illness for fear of saying the wrong the thing. I really subscribe to the philosophy of “better to sit back and let everyone think you’re an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” But then I felt really convicted by the notion that saying the wrong thing or not saying something perfectly is better than not saying anything at all. As a podcaster, if I don’t use my voice to speak up, who will? Silence is how the stigma starts and if we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to get better. So my first point is that it’s okay to talk about this. It’s okay to have the conversation even if you don’t have all the words. So bare with me if I don’t have all the words.
Secondly, this is my experience and I recognize that it may be totally different from other people’s. But this isn’t a one size fits all problem. It varies from person to person and just because my struggle is different from yours or yours is different from someone else’s doesn’t invalidate the experience. So whether you’re going through this yourself or talking to someone who’s going through it, realize that anxiety and depression can show up differently for different people. Some days, for me, it’s like this constant knot in my stomach and this voice in the back of my mind constantly telling me that something is wrong. Some days it’s not having the energy to get out of bed for no real reason at all. Some days it manifests as deep feelings of guilt and despair that can’t be overcome or extreme panic that no rational argument can combat.
There’s a difference between being sad and being depressed. Sadness is a reaction to an event or circumstance and when circumstances improve, your feelings improve, too. Depression is when you feel sad or morose about EVERYTHING- whether there was an event to trigger the feelings or not. It affects every aspect of your well being and even when circumstances change, you may not be able to bounce right back. Same with anxiety and fear. Fear is response to a specific threat, anxiety is not easily linked to anything specific.
Mental illness is not a moral problem. I think there’s so much shame surrounding this specific struggle because people think “well just pray harder and it will get better” or “you must be feeling that way because you’re not close enough to God.” And while I firmly believe God has the power to overcome anything and I have experienced a lot of redemption and healing through prayer and getting in the word, as well as making lifestyle changes, what it boils down to is a chemical imbalance in my brain. My mom explained it to me so well when she said “just like a diabetic doesn’t produce enough insulin, your body doesn't produce enough serotonin. And just like a diabetic needs to take insulin, you need to take something to help your body produce what it needs.” Now, that’s a really simplified version and there’s more science involved in both cases but the gist of it is this- if you’re experiencing these feelings, your body needs help.
It’s hard to trust your gut when anxiety and depression have been the drivers for so long. It leads to indecision, second guessing, and loneliness. A healthy dose of fear is good, but when you’re CONSTANTLY battling between "is this normal? Should I actually be feeling this way or am I overreacting?" it's exhausting. Guy Winch gives an excellent TED talk entitled "Why We Need To Practice Emotional First Aid” and he talks about how loneliness can warp your thinking and cause you to think irrationally. It’s about 15 minutes long so it’s an easily digestible video to gain some insight into how this thinking can occur, some remedies, and why it’s so important to care for your emotional health.
I think part of the reason mental illness is so intangible is that it’s ever changing. You can be fine one minute and then all of the sudden, you feel it starting to creep in and trying to take hold. It’s also easy to mask because it’s not physical. When someone has a broken leg, you see the cast and you see how it alters their mobility. Anxiety or depression may manifest as irritability or anger or indifference and the root cause of these symptoms may not even be apparent to the person experiencing them.
While there are a lot of tools that can help you in your the healing process, when you’re in the throes of anxiety/depression, sometimes you don’t have the desire or energy to use them. I remember my doctor encouraging me to be more active and all I could think was “how am I supposed to go to the gym when I can’t even get out of bed?” For me, getting on an antidepressant/anti anxiety medication helped get me to the baseline I needed to be at so that I could start to make lifestyle changes. Medication has such a bad stigma and I’m not a doctor so I can’t tell you whether or not it's right for you, but what I can tell you is that, in my experience, it helped get me to where I needed to be to so I could make healthy changes. Everyone will be different and I could go off on a whole other tangent about finding the right medication, because it’s not always fun, and I’m not a proponent on staying on it forever, but sometimes that’s the kick you need to get started and that’s OKAY.
In order to make any kind of progress or receive healing, you have to reach out to someone. Seeking counsel is so valuable. This is something I’ve done in the past and honestly probably need to do again, because for as far as I’ve come, I think this will always be something I’ll fight and have to be diligent about. The first time I went to a counselor, she actually wasn’t super helpful. In fact, she kind of sucked. But the sheer act of making the appointment and going made me feel in control and helped me fight the feelings of powerlessness I was feeling. Even though that first experience wasn't great, she referred me to a clinical nurse specialist who was awesome. She didn’t invalidate my feelings, but was able to point out some flawed thinking patterns and help me come up with strategies and solutions to combat some of my trigger points. All that to say, there might be some trial and error in finding the right person, but it’s so worth it. It can also be pricey and insurance doesn’t always cover counseling, but look into a college with a graduate training program or telepractice or ask about a sliding scale rate.
Talking to a friend is also immensely helpful. Not to commiserate and pull yourselves down even further, but to remind you that you’re not alone. I’m not suggesting that you go out and make a bunch of friends who are all gloom and doom, but chances are, if you’re struggling, you probably know someone else who is, too. That’s why I feel it’s so important to talk about it in this space. To give a voice to the loneliness. To remind you that it’s okay to have these conversations. To remind you that you’re not the only one who feels this way, even on days when you feel alone. That's why we are so on board for what Ashley McCrary is doing on Instagram at healthylittlepeach. She has started the #iamknownmovement for people to share their unique stories with depression as a way to recognize that you are known, you are seen, and you are heard.
As for being the friend on the receiving end of the outreach, if this isn’t something you struggle with, don't try to fix or brush off the problem. Rather than saying something trite like “tomorrow will be better!” Or “”don’t worry about it!”, just listen to what they say. Offer solidarity by saying “that sucks. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, I know that must be hard.” Then remind them that they’re not alone, either by offering encouragement or prayer or maybe showing up at their house and physically reminding them that they’re not alone. Sometimes when people are in their darkest place they may not be able to say what they need or reject offers for what they need most. The simple act of showing up and being present, even if it’s watching re-runs of The Office in silence together, can sometimes be the most helpful thing you can do. The most UNhelpful thing you can do is take a “just get over it” approach. Obviously, if they could, they would. Nobody wants to live their life that way and hearing someone reduce it to such simple terms only escalates the feelings of guilt and despair.
In the same vein, you don't have to wait for your friends to reach out to you. Don't hesitate to check in if you see or suspect your friend is struggling. She may not have the wherewithal or emotional strength to reach out to you, so the ball is in your court And don't overlook the strong friend, she may be the one who is struggling the most. People often hesitate to check in for fear of offending, but if it's done in love, no one is going to have their feelings hurt by you showing that you care.
On the flip side of all of this, I have found that changing my scenery, moving my body, getting plenty of sleep, and practicing gratitude really make a difference in my mental state. There are times when I get so stuck in my negative feelings and I allow them to fester, but if I can just move to different room or make myself go for a walk, I’ll end up feeling better. It’s not immediate, but if I can make myself go outside for a 30 minute walk or even get in the car and drive to Sonic to get a drink, that’s usually enough time to start to get me out of my funk. Especially if that movement involves getting out in the sun- vitamin D is proven to be effective in the treatment of depression. Another effective practice is gratitude. Before I go to bed at night, I list 10 things I’m grateful for, because I've learned gratefulness and anxiety cannot coexist. I've also learned that sleep is HUGE for me. I can tell when I’m not getting enough sleep because EVERYTHING will send me over the edge. And not just being moody, but irrational fears start to emerge. If I'm not getting enough sleep, I'm not able to discern what is a legitimate threat and what is an unsubstantiated phobia. When I learned to recognize these signals, I was better able to intervene appropriately.
The final takeaway is this: mental illness not who you are. Who you really are is being masked by how this illness has manifested. You are not resigned to living the rest of your life with these feelings. There is hope for you. "I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - John 16:33