It is not appropriate to write about anxiety and depression at a time like this. Not with Christmas, with its promise of hope and renewal and togetherness, knocking on the door; not with the images of wild celebrations over Argentina’s win of the football World Cup still vivid in everyone’s minds. It is not easy to write about the suffering that anxiety and depression bring, and yet I was inspired by the courage of one person who dared speak out loud about these two partners in crime, first as a brief mention, then as recurring problem, and later, with increased boldness, as the elephant that has been standing quietly in the room and needs to be looked at, straight in the eye. And the best part is, it was all so very genuine, like pure rain from pregnant clouds.
Let’s start by introducing the pair who do not need much introduction. In evolutionary terms, anxiety and depression are emotions, best described as biological adaptations that evolved to serve a function that should, at least in theory, serve our interests well. Anxiety, like fear, is a normal defense mechanism that is triggered by the risk of losing something valuable, and should help us deal with the danger.
Depression, on the other hand, is the emotional reaction to the actual loss of something biologically valuable, precious things like our health, our loved ones, our standing in society, our main source of wealth, and important relationships. As cruel as it sounds, depression is the emotional programme that shuts down all other programmes. It’s the mind’s way of saying: “listen, I’ve tried, I’ve been trying, I’m not sure there’s anything else I should try, so I think it would be a good idea to just give up and stop trying”. At this point depression feels like the thing that has pushed you into a deep pit in the middle of nowhere on a night with no moon.
What is the way up, then? At the mention of anxiety and depression, a lot of people come up with all sorts of tips and tricks, even if they don’t have the knowledge or the first-hand experience. The reason why I find evolutionary psychology to be liberating, so to speak, is because the emphasis is on the understanding of the phenomenon, down to its roots. You might say that this is not a method for a solution, and that by the time you’ve become an expert in evolutionary reasoning, you are still paralysed with nerve-wrecking anxiety on the couch, or that you are still unable to throw a life-saving rope to your best friend down the hole.
Let’s give it a try, shall we? One of the first things to understand is that there is a very big difference between anxiety and depression. When possessed by anxiety, you are in a state of preparedness, always alert and fully loaded to act in defense. You are fueled by a strange energy, the type that consumes you rather than drives you to a safe destination. It is a horrible feeling, like being in a forest (already not good news if you don’t like forests) but the trees are live electrical wires, swerving violently in gale-force winds. Depression is different. You are imprisoned, you are weak from a severe lack of appetite and sleep deprivation with a mix of nightmares, and the worst part of it is that this is all the result of an attack by your own system.
Having understood the difference, the next step is to realise that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not important to make the distinction between the two. What is important, and perhaps a little bit urgent, is that you crawl your way out of whichever tunnel you happen to find yourself in.
During attacks from anxiety, panic, fear, or any of its close relatives, your body feels helpless because your mind is too captured by the threat to give instructions. This is why we feel that we have absolutely no control over things. It is also why the key to overcome this feeling, slowly and until you can also face the danger lurking in the shadows behind, is to do other things that give you a sense of power, however small they might be. And here comes the warning: do things with your body, not your mind, because it is through your body that you can heal your mind. That means maintenance works, either at your house or at a friend’s (who will be grateful), any form of sparring/kick-boxing sessions, some hard labour at a local farm (all the better if it’s harvest season), or any other activity that does not need you to focus and will make you sweat your pores out. At least, you’re guaranteed to sleep from a sweet exhaustion.
Tackling depression is undoubtedly more difficult, because your tank is on empty, and you need to rely on someone else to give you that first push (and many others). The magic ingredient is value, that which we have lost in one area of our lives, and need to find in some other. Remember, we are looking for value of very small proportions, starting as small as possible and saving up. If I remember well, in her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg says that even making your own cup of coffee seems like a big feat but if necessary this is where you need to start. Be of value, to yourself, and to others. Start by doing small things, like giving someone a ride, preparing a single-ingredient soup and serving it to others, accompanying a colleague for a presentation and waiting in the corridor outside, etc., until, eventually, you feel confident and courageous enough to handle bigger jobs and bigger responsibilities, such as volunteering, where you can give a little value and earn so much more in return.
If all this sounds a little bit too simplistic, it’s probably because that’s the way it’s meant to be, just like the recipe for a beginner’s Christmas cake. It might not be as complex and as full of flavour as the real thing, yet this version is the gift that I hope brings a touch of warm comfort to your hearts when you need it.
At Christmas-time, and throughout the year.