“Sometimes, if you want to see a change for the better, you have to take things into your own hands.” – Clint Eastwood
If you have depression, you are probably intimately acquainted with anxiety as well. The comorbidity rate (the likelihood of two diseases coexisting in the same person at the same time) for depression and anxiety is quite high—58% of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder also experience some form of anxiety disorder.[i] And here you thought you were somehow abnormal!
While depression feels like wearing cement blocks chained to your ankles, anxiety feels like cement blocks are piled on your chest. Breathing is constricted, and the heart rate speeds up. Other physical symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, sweating, nausea, tense muscles, super-sensitive skin, heightened startle reflex, and trembling. Along with the physical symptoms come mental and emotional ones: Worry, irritability, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, a distorted view of problems or events, and a desire to isolate.
Interestingly, many researchers in the depression and anxiety fields believe that “a brain serotonin abnormality has more to do with anxiety than with depression,”[ii] according to Dr. Charles L. Whitfield, but because pharmaceutical companies have told us for more than 20 years that depression is caused by the brain’s inability to utilize serotonin properly (all the better to sell antidepressant drugs), that’s what we believe. This actually makes sense to me. In my own experience, taking SSRIs didn’t do much for my depression but seemed to alleviate the anxiety somewhat, if only by making me feel numb.
Riding a wave of anxiety can feel very much like riding a surfboard: You’re not at all sure you’re going to be able to keep your balance and you’re very much afraid you’re going to end up floundering about in water over your head. The unconscious impulse is to freeze and grab on to anything that feels familiar, whether it be a place, a person, or a routine; and to avoid anything that feels threatening. This is the old freeze-or-flee paradigm. Functioning normally becomes difficult, if not impossible.
For this reason, it’s important to interrupt the fear messages your brain is sending to your body and mind. (Let’s face it: Your brain doesn’t always interpret things accurately; it just thinks it does.) There are a number of ways to do this:
- Physical engagement—for example, aerobic exercise;
- Mental engagement—for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy;
- Spiritual engagement—for example, meditation.
Try this simple exercise I developed to relieve anxiety that incorporates both physical and spiritual engagement:
1) Find a quiet place where you can be alone for about five minutes. If this is a restroom stall at your workplace, so be it.
2) Take note of your anxiety level: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being barely noticeable and 10 being off the charts.
3) Take three deep breaths. By “deep” breath, I mean, inhale to the count of four; hold for two; exhale to the count of four. If you can go for counts of six, three, six, do so.
4) Rub your hands together until they are warm. This may take from one to two minutes.
5) Place your left palm over your heart and your right palm over your solar plexus, about 2-4” above your navel. (The solar plexus is the spot where we frequently feel we have a “knot in the stomach.”)
6) Continue breathing deeply. On the inhale, say to yourself, “I am a beloved child of God.” On the exhale, say to yourself, “I let go of all that does not serve me. I am safe.” Do this for one minute, or until you are feeling calmer and better able to function.
7) Smile. Bask in the feeling of being loved and safe.
8) Take note of your anxiety level now. Has it gone down?
If you do not “arrive” at a place of feeling connected to your Higher Power, don’t worry about it. The point is to feel better, not to have a transformative spiritual experience. The more you practice this exercise, the more powerful and effective it becomes.
(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.
[i] U.S. National Comorbidity Survey, 2005, http://www.medical-library.org/j_psych/depression_and_anxiety.htm.