If you have chronic anxiety or depression you know the importance of understanding the cycles of your illness. The more you understand how your mental illness behaves, the easier it is to make plans to counteract it.
For me, my anxiety runs on a shorter cycle than my depression. The worst of my anxious extremes usually lasts one to three days. The worst of my depression extremes usually lasts a week to a month.
In statistics regression to the mean is a concept that shows that extreme measures will likely return back toward the average (mean) score. For example, an athlete who has a really great season will likely have a worse season the next year as their performance returns toward their average. The opposite is also true. An athlete who has a horrible season will likely do better the next year as they perform more toward what is average for them. Yes, I know there are exceptions. But statistics deals with generalities in a large population. Not the few outliers.
I first encountered the concept many years ago when I took statistics as an undergraduate. Unfortunately at the time, I did not appreciate how I could apply it to my life. It was not until years later when I had returned to school for a graduate degree and took a more advanced statistics class that I saw a way to use regression to the mean to manage my illnesses.
Because both my illnesses are emotion-focused, I have found that I cannot work on them emotionally. When I’m sad and hopeless from depression I cannot just will myself happy. When I’m stressed and scared from anxiety I cannot talk myself into being calm.
Living with Anxiety Means Being A Hostage Negotiator
Your mind holds you prisoner and telling it that you don’t negotiate with terrorists is not an option.
What I have found that works is to approach my illness in a rational and logical way. To do this, I have had to study myself and learn the pattern of my cycles.
This way I understand my triggers. I also understand what is normal and what is extreme.
Learn Your Average
The first step is to learn your own mean. You have to observe your own life and feelings and figure out what is normal for you.
I experience above-average anxiety and mild depression as my normal day-to-day reality. Most of the time that is what I will be experiencing.
Once you learn your average feelings you will be able to notice when you feel better or worse. Pay attention to those changes.
Every person experiences their mental illnesses in unique ways. Only you can learn what is normal for you.
Learn Your Pattern
Once you know how it is typical for you to feel and you notice when you don’t feel typical, then you need to chart those differences. Over time, notice how long they last. Do you have long periods where your anxiety is in remission and you basically feel like a person who does not have anxiety? Is your depression seasonal?
The reason for knowing how long your changes usually last is so that you can know when you can try to ride it out and when it may be something more serious that might require more intervention.
If you typically have episodes of depression that last a month, but suddenly have been in one for three months with no signs of improvement or possibly even feeling worse, it is time to seek some medical help. A situation that is far worse than normal might be something you won’t be able to get yourself through.
But your typical episodes are things you can likely learn to live with. If medication and/or therapy are not helpful or not options for you, the only other choice is to learn to ride the waves of your illness so you can live as full a life as possible.
If you are riding your waves alone, it is imperative for you to understand what your mean is.
Talk Yourself Through the Bad Times
My next step is really just a lot of supportive self-talk. When I am very anxious or wrapped up in the darkness of depression it is very easy to feel like the pain will never stop. This is where knowing my pattern becomes so important. Because I’ve had these illnesses for so long, I can look back on many episodes that felt that bad and know that I got through them.
While reminding myself I survived before, I am also able to reassure myself that there is an endpoint for the feelings. That I will start to feel better (in days or weeks depending on whether it is anxiety or depression) and more like what is normal and livable for me.
Talk Yourself Down During the Good Times
An often-overlooked side effect of knowing what your patterns are is the ability to keep yourself from overextending yourself when you are feeling good. It is important to remind yourself that the good feelings will not last forever.
When I first started graduate school it happened to coincide with a good period for both my anxiety and depression. It was a weird time. Rarely do both illnesses ease up at the same time. For a little bit, I had my emotions trying to convince me to take on extra projects. To be clear, I don’t mean, in any way, to compare this to a bipolar manic episode. It was just me feeling good and positive and thinking about starting some of the stuff on my “someday” list.
Fortunately, I knew myself well enough to sit on my plans for a couple of weeks to see how my classes were because I had rearranged my life to allow me to focus primarily on school for that year. That was enough time for my moods to regress toward the mean. I was glad I had not taken anything else on because there were a couple of periods of time during that year when it was all I could do to drag my ass through my classes.
If you take on or agree to too much while you are feeling good, you will end up disappointing people and yourself. I know from experience that you will rip yourself apart for years if you put yourself in that situation.
Understanding how regression to the mean can affect your illness will help you keep your life on a more even keel. You can ride out the bad times knowing it will ease up. You can limit how much you allow yourself to take on during the good times so that you are not overwhelmed with you start to feel worse. Taking the time to learn and understand the distinct patterns of your illness will serve you well in your future.