Beneath Anxiety and Depression

Susan’s teenage children are acting out. Her aging parents want more of her time and attention. Her mother is beginning to show signs of dementia and her father wants Susan to help him navigate through this challenge.

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When Susan comes for her weekly therapy sessions she reports experiencing anxiety and depression. She often vacillates between these two states of mind several times within the course of any given day.

Susan also works part time as a librarian. She doesn’t have time to work out or take care of herself. Her husband works long hours and is afraid of losing his job. They are both exhausted and not very communicative when there is time for them to be alone together. Susan has become increasingly lonely and isolated from relationships and activities that had nourished her in the past.

After listening to several configurations of her story I explained to Susan that anxiety and depression are states of mind that prevent her from feeling deeper emotions. For example, depression is really the suppression of painful emotions like anger, fear, resentment, and loneliness. Similarly, anxiety is a way of taking flight from true feeling states, like anger, fear, resentment, and loneliness. I suggested to her that when she finds a way to stop suppressing or taking flight from these difficult feelings, then invariably other more authentic emotions will rise to the surface.

Silence permeated the room. We just sat together. I witnessed Susan’s face soften. Her eyes widened and it seemed that in this moment something clicked. She asked, “Are you saying that depression and anxiety are just covering up other things I’m really feeling?”

“‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Working together we have the opportunity to slowly peel away the layers and figure out what is really going on for you beneath the anxiety and depression.”

Susan’s participation in our work together began to change. She became more  invested in delving  deeply into what she was feeling. As suggested, Susan  wrote in a journal and meditated for about five minutes daily. In her sessions she began exploring what she might be really feeling.

As she entered this new phase of therapy, Susan kept in mind that the anxiety and depression were the masks. Her determination to explore what lay beneath became the driving force behind our work together.

In talking about her feelings of loneliness and isolation, Susan felt like she had not really connected with her husband, her friends, her children, or even her parents for many months. She missed her girlfriends terribly and the support  they might have provided her had she been able to reach out. Her built-in support system was her family but the breakdown in communication had contributed to her anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Susan also noticed her anger. She was angry at all the demands placed on her by her children, husband, and parents, and the little recognition she got for all of her efforts. Susan was angry that she could not connect with friends, exercise, sleep enough, or take care of herself in a meaningful way. She felt like she was always running on empty.

Knowing how she really felt beneath the anxiety and depression put Susan in a more empowered position. She began to make certain conscious choices. After carefully examining Susan’s schedule together we found that if she consolidated some of her tasks like grocery shopping, cooking in bigger batches or buying prepared foods, and eliminating some trips to the mall, she could free up some valuable time. She also volunteered to cut down on watching television and surfing the Internet.

Susan carved out two hours of time for herself in her daily schedule, committing herself to connect with friends, work out and take walks, write in her journal and do whatever  would be supportive or meaningful to her. Although Susan could not always manage to give herself the goal of two full hours, she became more successful at sticking to that plan over time. Susan found herself feeling less lonely, isolated, and angry the more she connected with friends and took care of herself. Paradoxically, she had much more energy for her family, work, and responsibilities.

If you are experiencing mild anxiety and depression or related symptoms, you might want to consider keeping a journal, maybe even two journals. One for keeping tracks of your moods and thinking things through and another for keeping track of what makes you feel grateful. A gratitude journal allows you to cultivate a more positive perspective, and a general journal allows you to express your moods, thoughts, and emotions.

Beneath the anxiety and depression there is always something to understand about what one is truly feeling.  Meditation can also help cut through to the core of these feelings.

For me, nothing quite beats talking with someone I trust when I feel overwhelmed or distraught. I have kept a journal for years recording feelings, thoughts and experience. And a few minutes of being still and meditating usually helps to settle me down and gain some clarity.

Please share what you do to manage difficult feelings.


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