When we function in a healthy manner, we don’t just experience joy and happiness, prancing around without a care in the world. We actually still experience a range of emotions, some of which can be very difficult to live with.
It’s absolutely healthy to feel anxiety, depression, anger, jealousy, envy, guilt, hurt or shame. But what makes experiencing these emotions healthy is that we don’t linger in them for longer than is good for us. We don’t demand that they ‘go away.’ We accept the appropriateness of how we feel, and do something about our situation.
Let me give you an example of how a person’s thinking can perpetuate depression.
Imagine that your favorite dog was very sick and you took her to the vet, who tells you she’s in a lot of pain and it’s best to euthanize her. How do you think you might feel? Very sad (most likely), guilty (perhaps), happy (to some degree if you know you can stop her suffering). So, do those emotions seem healthy and appropriate to you? Of course they do, and to experience them is human.
Given the choice, you may not have wanted to face that situation in the first place, but we can’t always pick and choose what happens to us in life. We can only choose how we deal with those situations when they arise.
So how could a person drive themselves into depression after such an event? It’s easy. When a person feels sad about a loss or death, if they start taking far too much responsibility for what happened and judging themselves negatively, then depression will be only a short taxi ride away. The kind of thinking that perpetuates depression will be thoughts such as “I’m such a bad person for killing her,” “I should have done more to make her life happy,” “I should have taken her to the vet sooner and I would have saved her.”
None of those statements is wholly true, yet when you repeat them, you start to believe it and you feel depressed. You’ll even start acting depressed. Instead of going out for a walk, which you used to enjoy, you might stay at home watching TV, because ‘there’s no point in going out without your dog.’ You might even stop socializing with other dog walkers and so you’ll become more isolated, which perpetuates the problem.
So from a healthy sadness about the loss of a loved pet, with unhealthy thinking and behavior, your mood sinks into depression. And once there, it is a lot harder to get out of than when you’re healthily sad.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is depression’s opposite. Rather than dwelling on the past, people with anxiety tend to focus on the possible threat in the future, and employ defensive mechanisms against that perceived threat or problem. Let me give you another example.
Frank gives a presentation at work that doesn’t go down well with his boss. Frank gets shouted at and bawled out for not doing a good enough job. His boss also tells him that he must improve before the next presentation or else! How do you think you might feel? Disappointed (sure). Frustrated (maybe). Concerned (oh yeah).
So how does Frank perpetuate his anxiety? The first thing he does is to fly into the future and use ‘what if’ and ‘if…then’ type thinking. “If I deliver another bad presentation, then my boss will fire me.” “What if I can’t do it the way he wants?” “What if I’m terrible?”
These ‘what if’ thoughts are the precursors to the unhealthy demands that lead to anxiety: “I must know that the presentation will go well.” “I must not screw up the presentation or my boss will fire me.” “I must be perfect.”
The trouble with these irrational demands is that they lead to anxious behaviors: spending hours on the presentation; not sleeping; seeking others’ opinions; asking for reassurance; feeling nauseous beforehand; sweating; feeling ill at ease.
Clearly, Frank is not in a good state to be giving a presentation. He’ll most likely deliver a sub-par presentation. What do you think will happen next time he needs to give a presentation? He’ll feel worse.
To end these destructive cycles, we need to understand that emotions — even the difficult ones — are healthy. Emotions should be used as a guide to let us know that something is off-balance and might need changing. When we demand unreasonable things from ourselves, we’re destined to feel strong, unhealthy emotions.
It’s a thin line between healthy and unhealthy emotions, but by understanding how our thinking perpetuates our emotional disturbance, we can become a healthier version of ourselves.