Anxiety and depression have been my companions for most of my life. Both are not always active or active at the same levels, but both exist inside me all the time. At any given moment, one or the other is usually dominant. Most often it is the anxiety that is the strongest with depression being more of a lower level buzz in the background, lacking the spikes that anxiety often brings. During the times when the depression is dominant, the darkness smothers everything so that even the anxiety seems muted.
Recently I’ve been taking more proactive steps to try and get a handle on these issues. These are three tools I am using to my advantage.
1. Change of environment
Last month I moved into a new apartment. The move was not something I planned on doing but turned out to be a good thing for everyone involved. The actual moving time was stressful and exhausting, but once we were settled in, the new place has been good for me.
I’m less isolated than I was in our previous home and that is helping me take more of an interest in the world around me. Depression has dulled my curiosity and for many years I rarely showed much interest in what anyone other than my son was doing. I wrote about some of my newly discovered interests here:
I Am Not Intentionally Eavesdropping
What is it called when I can hear all you say, but I’m trying not to listen in?
Is He Really Trying to Help or Just a Thoughts-and-Prayers Kind of Guy?
Am I missing his progress or is he wasting his time?
Stories have begun forming in my head again. When I was younger, I would amuse myself by making up stories about people or things I’d see in my day to day life. I did not realize I had stopped doing that until I started again. I was unable to recall the last time I had done it. It felt good to know that my brain had not abandoned all curiosity to the darkness.
You do not need to move to get the same improvement. I should have made more of an effort to get out of my isolated rut where we were, but I failed to recognize how damaging it was. There are many things you can do to change your environment. Rearrange your furniture. Drive a different way to work. Cook a different meal. If you normally watch television, watch something different. Or read instead. Read something in a different genre or by a new author.
When you are just trying to drag yourself through each day without being swallowed by darkness or having a panic attack, it can be hard to try new things. Find something very tiny that you can do. Something brand new but do-able. Go into 7–11 and get a pack of gum in a flavor you have never tried before and chew some.
The point is to start showing your brain and yourself that things can change and that you have some level of control over that change.
2. Change of habits
I’ve written about trying to establish good habits a couple of times recently:
Re-establishing Personal Habits
Why am I having such a hard time getting back to the things I do for me?
These are very important because having good habits will help you be able to pull yourself out of bad mental situations. If you write every day, then on days when your showing signs of returning, you will still write because it is your habit to do so. If your habit is to exercise every day then it is a lot easier to keep doing that even when the darkness is trying to consume you if you are able to do so on autopilot.
There will be times when the depression or anxiety is too strong even for a long-established habit, but it is a lot easier to try and fight them back if you have good habits. Even if you cannot maintain the habits during a flare-up, later on you will know that you can establish them again, because you had in the past.
The other side of the habit coin is to try and stop habits that either contribute to or encourage your mental health issues. I’ve written about my battle with some of those too:
When Does Nail Biting Change from Bad Habit to Self-Harm?
How do I know if it is something more serious than just an unattractive way to relieve stress?
Biting my nails is a manifestation of my anxiety. It is also a negative feedback loop. I feel anxious so I bite. It makes the nails gross and when I look at them I feel anxious about how they look. Most recently they were so bad that I was anxious because I was worried I would not be able to stop biting them. Spoiler alert: so far so good on overcoming the nail-biting.
Surfing the web, particularly if it is news sites, is another bad habit I am trying to control. It exacerbates not only my anxiety but also my depression. I’m anxious about how bad things are and depressed over the prospects of them getting better. I worry about the world my son will have to be in long after I’m gone. I’m not planning to check out any time soon, but I’m a lot older than him so he will have to live with the consequences of this government much longer than I will. In addition to triggering both my mental illnesses, surfing the web is also how I procrastinate when I am supposed to be writing.
In making or breaking habits, take little steps. In re-establishing my exercise habit, I’ve started tiny and move up a little bit each week. In breaking my anxiety nail-biting, the first few days it was about making it an hour without biting. Then another. Then another. Then sleep.
3. Change of Attitude
This is the most important part because without a change in attitude, there will be no lasting change in habits and any change in the environment will be unproductive. I understand that sometimes you are so deeply in the darkness of depression or so wrung out from the worry/fear of anxiety that a wholesale change of attitude is impossible.
In those situations, it is all about the tiny steps. A lot of my anxiety is social and so one rule I now have is to say hello to any new neighbors I pass. At my old place and for most of my life, I would keep my head down and only respond if spoken to. I never initiated friendliness. Now, my baby step is to say hello. Most of them just say hello back and we all go on our merry ways. I still dread the ones who want to stop and have a conversation. Like the manager. He is a super nice guy but is very chatty. I know if I run into him it is going to be far more socializing than I want, but it is still good for me.
Small steps, taken consistently, add up. Small changes in attitude also add up. Maybe you don’t believe you can change, but you try some small new things and start to feel that some changes might be possible. Maybe that gives you to courage to try a bit bigger change and the bigger change makes you think you might have some control over changing.
Overhauling your attitude will not happen overnight. It took years for you to learn to believe what you believe now. It may take years to change those beliefs. Nothing will change unless you commit to changing it. You do not have to commit to changing all at once. Commit to tiny steps. Do one small thing today that will change your environment or lead to a better habit. Those small things will add up to a change in attitude.
Most of us will battle these illnesses all of our lives. There may be times when they go into remission, but sooner or later, they will probably return. With depression, our lives may depend on our ability to persevere through the darkness. With anxiety, the quality of our lives may depend on the amount of grit we possess.
Keep trying to improve. Continue to take small steps. Tiny improvement is still an improvement.
The most important part of battling depression and anxiety is to not give up. Easy to say, hard to live.