Anxiety, depression and a framework for stabilizing our changing moods. (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
The other day we were discussing your moods and how lately you have felt like you have been in a bit of an emotional slump filled with either anxiety or a lack of motivation. Well, I guess a silver lining is that you are not alone. This seems like a growing problem for people these days. Perhaps it was for people in the past, but it seems that mental health problems are on the rise. This actually is an issue that I personally am connected with.
I was super lucky to be born into a family with good genes for physical health. However, my family (like many families these days) has had some fairly serious issues with mental health. In looking at my own family I noticed a pattern. It seems that as people get older the mental health problems often get worse. In the past decade or so I began to notice in my self certain mental patterns and ways of processing thoughts that seemed to be following the patterns in my family. Swings between mania (a hyper productive and excited state) and depressed moods became more noticeable. For the first time in my life I began to think about my own mental health. I knew that through diet and exercise I could maintain and improve my physical health, so I asked myself: What is the equivalent of “diet and exercise” for mental health? Sure I could take medications to help my physical health when it really goes bad (and I am open to that for mental health issues) but I wanted to explore the non chemical ways to promote and maintain my mental health. The answers I found surprised me both in their simplicity and in how little people talk about them directly while in the midst of a society seemingly rife with growing mental and emotional health challenges.
An interesting frame of reference on this matter came when I was speaking to my brother after he finished his residency doing mental health work. He said “depression is not like cancer, it’s not like we do a blood test that shows that you are depressed. In fact everyone has depression. It exists on a spectrum but sometimes it goes beyond what a person can process and it begins to have an impact on their ability to function.” He went on to explain that while there are acute mental health problems (just like there are acute and sudden physical health problems) many common mental health problems like anxiety and depression exist in everyone to different degrees and that we all have different capacities and abilities for successfully processing them.
As I reflected, researched and read more about mental health I came to see many of the common mental health challenges were affiliated with mental connections to things in the future or the past. The pattern seemed to be that when your mind resides too much in the past the outcome can very often be depression. I initially thought this was because people had regrets from their past that plagued them, or perhaps trauma in the past that they never had fully resolved. And while this may be true in many cases, it seemed more common in my own family and in myself to be plagued by “good old days syndrome”. This is a syndrome that looks to past events with nostalgia and sadness that they are gone. Your mind tells you (probably below your level of conscious thought) that the best days are behind you so as you look forward nothing excites you. This taints your view of the future and results in a lack of motivation, optimism and hope. If these feelings grow beyond your ability to process you are robbed of being able to function with any degree of excitement and passion - everything feels pointless. The result is depression.
On the other hand, if our minds become overly focused on the future the result can be either mania (which seems to be connected with a hyper level of excitement about the future) or anxiety (which seems to be connected with a hyper sense of worry/fear about the uncertainty of the future). Again, these may be below the level of our conscious thought but perhaps you have noticed that your anxiety flairs when you consider things that have not yet happened but which may happen. I personally deal more with a mild mania where I will have insane energy levels as I get excited about a particular project in which my mind jumps with excitement about what the future has in store. This is then followed by a crash and low energy and desire levels. On the other hand people who live in a state of anxiety end up having their brains behave like an animal does when it’s in danger as they face uncertainty about future events. Our minds are not designed to live in this constant state of agitation and over time this can wear on a persons psyche and cause unusual paranoia and behaviors as the mind begins to suffer effects of overstimulation.
Now clearly this does not account for all the mental health phenomena we observe, but this paradigm has helped me wrap my head around some of the most common mental health challenges my family has faced. So what’s the solution? Well, I have to run at the moment. I will address that in my next letter.
Stay well my friend. - Jacob.