One of the more difficult aspects of dealing with anxiety and depression is that in each case, your closest confidant and most intimate adviser is probably busy giving you terrible advice.
Sometimes, your mind isn’t really your friend. If you have ever struggled with anxiety, depression, or anything similar, you probably relate pretty well to that statement. No matter what you try, the Eeyore lobe in your brain continues to light up incessantly with worries, regrets and general thoughts and feelings of miserableness.
This, of course, is maddening. No-one wants to feel miserable. So you try, try again to shift out of your negative mental space into something more positive, healthy, and life-affirming. Except it doesn’t seem to work. The negativity can act like a contagion, drawing attention to the dark shadows that are cast even on a bright, sunny day.
The solution should be simple. Focus on the positive. Find the silver lining. It will all be OK. Don’t worry. All of this is sensible advice, but in the case of ongoing anxiety and depression, it is probably doomed to fail.
There are a number of reasons why. One is that, just because someone is persistently negative doesn’t mean they are wrong. There ARE clouds on sunny days, after all. In fact, there is an interesting body of research suggesting that people with depression might see the world more accurately than people without. The evidence is not conclusive, but it does belie the notion that people struggle with depression because of inaccurate beliefs, or “thought distortions”. Sometimes the world actually is a cold, dark and inhospitable place.
Another reason is because, for someone who is stuck in chronic anxiety or depression, thinking positively is simply easier said than done. It might be true that they’ll feel better if they think of butterflies and raspberry bushes instead of thorns and pesticides, but, well, good luck with that. A person with depression might note that butterfly populations are often threatened by widespread pesticide use, and picking raspberries can be unpleasant due to thorns (both accurate).
In circumstances such as these, trying harder to “think positive” might not be the way to go. After all, if that were going to work, it probably would have already since most people, you know, don’t like to be upset and anxious, and try really hard to avoid it. It might be time to adopt a completely different strategy.
The backbone of an alternative strategy will probably lie not in what you are thinking and feeling, but in what you are doing. The focus of this approach will rest not on your thinking, but on your actions.
You know the aphorism “Believe it and you can achieve it”?
Flip it: “Achieve it and you can Believe it” might be better advice.
How about this one: “Change your mind, Change your life”.
Nope, I prefer: “Change your life, Change your mind”.
If you tend towards negativity, your mind is probably going to keep throwing it at you. See that brain above? It is probably not going to stop generating unwanted thoughts. We humans learn well, and once we learn something, it is really hard to unlearn. If you have picked up a tendency to worry, or towards melancholy, those tendencies can be maddeningly tenacious.
But you don’t have to eliminate negative thoughts to build positive behavior patterns. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss how to identify the kind of behavior patterns that are right for you, and how to keep your mind from sabotaging your success.