Often when I talk to people about mental health I will hear comments like “I have anxiety/depression.” When I listen to the ways in which people speak about their personal struggles with mental illness, they will describe it as though it’s a tangible thing that you either have or you don’t. It’s important for people to understand that you don’t contract conditions like anxiety or depression the same as you might “catch” a cold. When we understand mental health, only then can we begin to develop specific, unique ways to improve and enhance the overall quality of our lives.
“He has anxiety”
To begin with, nobody “has” anxiety. Actually, perhaps a more accurate statement is that we all have anxiety, especially as this applies to our bodies natural defense warning system. Specifically, all human beings are hard-wired with a nervous system that reacts to stimuli that we perceive as dangerous — the reaction we experience is what we call “anxiety.” For example, if you were suddenly given a huge school or work task that has to be completed by tomorrow, you might immediately respond with anxiety in the form of frantic thinking, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing. Your unique perception of a daunting task with little time often results in — you guessed it — anxiety.
Now, are there differences with respect to how we each experience anxiety? Absolutely. We all know someone who seems to always take life in stride, and we likely know others who struggle to stay calm in the face of seemingly any life stressor they face. These are known as individual differences, and they suggest that how we experience anxiety is as unique as we are as people. It’s important to understand that we all have the potential to experience anxiety, and that none of us lives a life completely devoid of anxiety. The same is true of depression — we all experience mood state changes, and none of us are immune to feeling depressed. Here again we don’t “catch” depression, but instead we all experience various fluctuations in mood states on a daily basis.
It’s not what you “have,” but what you do
Since we are all susceptible to challenges with anxiety and depression, it’s important that we not frame the discussion as one that looks at whether we “have” something or not. Our minds and bodies will continue to react and respond to life’s challenges, but we can channel and direct our thinking and behaviors if we choose. For example, we don’t have to panic when given a task to complete – even if it’s a challenging task. Rather than immediately assume you will fail, try and refine your focus and frame the situation as one that you can win. When we begin to think in positive ways, our bodies follow by experiencing less anxiety and better mind-body synchrony. If we want to experience less anxiety in life, then it’s important that we frame situations in ways that allow us to set goals and succeed.
When I hear people talk about “having” anxiety or depression, I become concerned that they may prisoners of their own thinking. By setting up assumptions and expectations that we will experience specific things in life, we often end up doing just that, but this has to do with self-fulfilling prophecies, not our own short-comings. Instead, it’s important to accept that mood states and anxiety shifts are part of the human experience, and that we all have to work on a daily basis to address our worries and insecurities.