When a person is anxious or depressed, she typically does what her brain has been evolutionarily conditioned to do when it experiences discomfort; she interprets the sensations as being (really, really) bad, and then recoils against them. We need not lament the fact that our brains are programmed to behave this way, since this evolutionary instinct alerts us that something is wrong and that we must take corrective action to avoid the possibility of disaster. It serves us well in cases of acute dysfunction and in fact allows us to survive on a material planet that impinges on our senses at every moment.
But in a day and age when we generally do not have to be vigilant against animal predators as our Neanderthal ancestors were, the fight-or-flight response can end up doing us more harm than good. It is counterproductive, for instance, when it fires during an exam, or when we are asking someone out on a date, or when we are about to deliver a speech. And if it fires too frequently, it can accelerate into a full-blown disorder, at which point it begins to fire even when there is no obvious threat that we need to be alerted of.
If we have not learned how to respond calmly to the physiological changes that occur when we experience an anxious or depressive episode, we perpetuate the negative impact they have on our mental wellbeing. In the absence of an effective strategy to manage these sensations, the brain will react as it has always reacted before – with aversion leading to suffering. Often the difference between how the brain reacts to chronic anxiety or depression and an acute bout of it simply rests in the length of time that it continues to generate repugnant feelings about the symptoms. This is why having chronic anxiety or depression can be so exhausting; as long as the discomfort persists, the brain continues to react (unless and until we learn to work skillfully with it).
Understanding that our brains will naturally generate such an aversive reaction to our symptoms is absolutely essential because it brings us to the crux of how to start on the path to healing from anxiety or depression. When I truly understood this, I demystified what was going on in my brain during anxious or depressive spells. Over time, these feelings no longer troubled me; I could ride them out, and even examine them with an air of curiosity as they lingered.
But for the longest time I thought that the way to heal was to try and make myself not have anxious or depressed feelings – to simply will these sensations and symptoms to go away. I thought that having the feelings themselves was the problem, when in reality the problem is how I failed to respond to them in the correct way when they occurred.
Though counterintuitive, anxiety and depression lose their stranglehold over us when we can get anxious or depressed and just let it be. “But how will that make it go away?” we ask. Therein lies the entire problem – as long as we rile against our feelings, wishing and pleading that they would leave, we will continue to be anxious and depressed. It is such behavior – such helpless urgency – that generates the problem itself.
My worst mistake was becoming too emotionally invested in my feelings. Instead of passively accepting them, I riled against them all the time. It was so hard for me to change my behavior because all my life I could will myself to overcome anything just by trying harder. Recovering from anxiety and depression doesn’t work that way. In fact, recovery entails the exact opposite – passive acceptance.
Passive acceptance does not mean defeatism. It simply means coming to terms with the fact that your symptoms are here for the time being, and it is okay if you need to be with them for now.
For many months I practiced passive acceptance without knowing what exactly I was doing or whether it was helping. All I knew was that I no longer wanted my life to revolve around thinking about how bad my symptoms were and how much I wanted to get rid of them. That had done absolutely nothing for me except erode the quality of my life.
So instead of focusing my efforts on making my symptoms go away, I read books I enjoyed. I prayed. I meditated (a lot). I listened to teachings from leaders I respected. I explored nature. I exercised and ate well. I pursued my passions and developed new interests. I learned to love myself. I got involved in community. I tried to care for others. I forced myself to see the potential and the good in every situation, something that my symptoms continually gave me the opportunity to do. I stopped asking my symptoms for permission to do things I wanted to do. I allowed my symptoms to keep me humble and focused on life’s pleasures both big and small.
I did none of these things perfectly, but I did them relentlessly. I was determined to reclaim my life, since my symptoms had stolen so much of it for so long.
Only in hindsight can I now see what I was striving to accomplish in deciding to live my life without obsessing about curing my symptoms any longer. I was striving to embody my new definition of healing, which I can now identify as the following: Healing is an ongoing process of sanctifying our minds as we work with our anxiety and depression in a skillful, productive, hopeful, and redemptive way. This process unfolds within us a humble and enduring contentment with our lives that leads to peace.
For me, this was a revelatory way of thinking about my recovery. Instead of trying to force my anxiety and depression away, I learned to work with them and even allowed them to illuminate my life in surprising ways. Things began to change for the better when I truly began to see my symptoms not as a malicious threat to my health and happiness, but as an ally ushering me into a more fulfilling life – if only I had the courage to accept them as such.
Eventually this way of thinking began to calm my mind and vitalize my soul. And the symptoms I so vociferously condemned actually provided me the opportunity to receive these gifts.
My anxiety and depression humbled me. They exposed the destructive behaviors and distorted thought processes that I had previously allowed to dominate my life. They showed me what it felt like to be at the mercy of something out of my control, even though, ironically, the depths of fear, isolation, and despair they brought me were the very things that empowered me to take control of my life.
My anxiety and depression taught me how to subdue the power of a wily brain that for so long robbed me of my dignity. Without them, I would have continued on a path of mediocrity, boredom, selfishness, and mental, emotional, and spiritual immaturity. They allowed me to embrace life in a way that those who are exempt from having to face persistent discomfort cannot.
My anxiety and depression did not save my life. Instead, they gave me a new one, far better than the one I had before.
Anxiety and depression have the power either to destroy us or to heal us. Whichever they do depends on what we choose to do with and believe about them. We allow them to destroy us when we kick and scream for them to go away, but we allow them to heal us when we learn to use them to our advantage and for our benefit.
Earlier I mentioned that the crux of obtaining this healing rests on the knowledge that our reptilian brains naturally react to discomfort with a ferocious aversion. Unless we become fully aware of and understand the way in which our brains cause us to suffer, we will not know how to overcome its tricks and begin the healing process.
We must understand that healing comes gradually to us as we train our brains to respond to our symptoms rather than react to them. I have heretofore described the brain as a reactive organ, not a responsive one, because that is what it naturally is.
A reaction is visceral, instinctual, and often overwhelming, while a response is measured, skillful, and composed. When the primitive brain feels discomfort, it senses danger, and the urgency of the perceived danger triggers an automatic reaction intended to grab the attention of the host to take action.
From an evolutionary standpoint, then, the series of events from stimulus (an anxious or depressive thought/feeling) to perception and then to interpretation of the stimulus must occur rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that we are not even aware of the fact that such a chain exists, because when faced with danger the brain cannot afford to waste any time. The point along this chain at which reacting and responding to our discomfort diverge is right between perception and interpretation. When the brain perceives the discomfort, it simply becomes aware or conscious of it. It merely understands what is happening (e.g. “this is an anxious or depressive thought/feeling”), without attaching an emotional charge to this understanding.
The moment the brain perceives the discomfort is the moment that we either react or respond to it. Left untrained, the brain will react each and every time, because it is evolutionarily conditioned to do so in order to try to protect us from danger. And whenever we react to our discomfort with toxic thoughts, we generate onerous emotions which then serve as another deleterious stimulus on top of the original stimulus. These emotions are often more intense than the initial stimulus itself, so we can easily fall into the trap of reacting negatively to the emotions, thus perpetuating a cycle of suffering.
But we can train ourselves instead to respond to discomfort. We can teach our brain to recognize the small but decisive space that exists between perception and interpretation, and in that space decide to respond in a way that facilitates our healing by making good use of the discomfort. Viktor Frankl puts it well: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
While this sounds easy, it is anything but. We are essentially combating an evolutionary program that has developed through selective modification over millions of years. But we are able to do this, since evolution has also given us a neuroplastic brain – that is, a brain whose neuronal networks, including the ones that determine whether and how we react or respond to discomfort, are physically malleable. This is great news for us who struggle with anxiet or depression, because the quality of our lives very well depends on our ability to leverage our willpower to rewire our brain’s experience of discomfort. I believe that the human will is the most potent force in the universe, and when it is properly channeled (e.g. through mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral changes), can shape the brain in astounding ways.
The type of healing I have described comes from recognizing and understanding what the brain is naturally inclined to do in the face of discomfort, and then training it to respond rather than react to it. Over time, with a lot of practice, determination, patience, guidance, and support, we become adept at working with our anxiety or depression in a skillful, wise, and tender way. We train ourselves to become no longer threatened by our discomfort, and even to be comfortable with it. We de-fang our symptoms, so to say. And once we take away their power over us, we assume power over them.
The process by which this all occurs is the road to healing. Rewiring the brain to overcome discomfort takes more than just brute effort. Repeating endlessly to yourself not to be upset at your symptoms will likely not solve the problem. The brain needs to be taught why it should not be upset, and become convinced on the deepest level that the discomfort really is okay – that life with anxiety or depression is a life worth living, just as it is.
This requires a willingness to refine or even replace any personality traits, learned habits and tendencies, worldviews, and other underlying factors that do not assist in positively shaping the brain to overcome its aversive attitudes – be it increased anxiety, anger, or depression – to the uncomfortable symptoms. Chronic suffering as a result of anxiety or depression often prompts an entire overhaul of our mental, emotional, and spiritual paradigms in order for us to overcome our suffering and thrive in our present bodies. But as we do this work, we grow and experience the fullness of life in ways we would have otherwise missed without the impetus of our trial.
As a result, the one who has suffered so long from anxiety or depression no longer has to suffer.
This is freedom. This is healing.