Something some people don’t know about me – I used to need eye drops every day to be able to see because I used to cry so much. Here are 6 things that helped me get through depression and anxiety.
Mild trigger warning for depressing themes (literally).
In truth, I’ve never really been that secretive about my struggle with anxiety and depression. I’ve written about it quite a few times before, especially mainly summed up in my personal review of the year 2017. I have also struggled with panic attacks in times previous to that, and walked through this sort of season with many others. In various social groups, I’m known not to be afraid to go into detail about my experience either.
It was pretty bad for a while there. In particular, a bout of mental illness from 2016 into 2017 was really quite soul crushing. I had (and still have) a lot of good things in my life and was still keeping up with most things – most of my volunteer commitments, seeing family and friends, and my full time job. However, on the side of things, I was drained of energy, crying all the time, and not bouncing back the way I usually did. Sleep was more difficult, I would be exhausted just after a simple day of work, and I really had to make more room for recovery in order to keep doing the things I loved and knew I was called to do.
I remember it was after my birthday in 2016 which had been a really great day where I realised something was really wrong. I should have been really happy and energised, instead I was a bit indifferent and run down. This marked the start of my biggest battle with mental illness yet.
The organisation Beyond Blue reports that 1 in 7 Australians are likely to develop depression in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 are likely to struggle with anxiety. This means that if you’re reading this, it means you’re either in that boat yourself, or know someone who is – the stats are pretty high in other countries around the world, too.
The sombre good news, then, is that you’re not alone.
And I was recently writing about the work of a psychologist who had really helped me out during this time in a recent post, and it made me realize I don’t think I’ve gone step by step through the things that really helped me out in a super targeted way during that time. So, here’s what helped me in my journey in the hope to help you during yours – here are six things that helped me get through depression and anxiety.
#1: Seeing a doctor
My experiences with other people made me realize how important it was to seek medical advice before doing anything else. Depression and anxiety are multi-layered issues that can sometimes have physical causes such as chemical imbalance, and beyond that, psychological causes can have effects on the body such as ceasing its ability to generate serotonin (the happiness chemical) or even producing said imbalance.
I did this within a few days of realising that my emotions were staying flat after my birthday. I was very glad I did as the doctor was able to do all the right blood tests to check things as well as getting me progressing on a mental health plan, and finding a proper diagnosis and solution.
It’s unfortunate that I have heard of many people who are reluctant to seek medical attention during depressive episodes or bouts with anxiety, especially men. I urge you, if your mood has not improved, the least you can do is get your doctor to get you moving in the right direction towards health.
#2: Professional help
After my doctor’s diagnosis and with their continued support, I went and sought a professional counsellor. In seeing the doctor I remembered that a few weeks or a month or so before my birthday I had felt something inside me snap and not go back to the way it was. In this event, a culmination of many, many years of traumatic events and perhaps too many negative environments had taken their toll on me.
I am forever grateful for the man who counselled me through this time as well as the support staff and supervisory staff around him. Together they helped me put my heart back together.
The story that I recently wrote about that got me thinking on sharing this in a more targeted way was from psychologist Dr Henry Cloud, who compared depression and anxiety to a car that experiences a crash. You don’t call the car defective – it is very normal that if enough force and trauma is applied to the car, that it will lose its shape and be unable to function. In such cases, you would take a car to the mechanic to get it fixed back up so it can function properly.
This is what counselling did for me. Expert, professional, targeted help is needed to recover from such great damage. Cars cannot repair themselves or after leaving them for a long period of time, and we usually can’t either.
#3: A strong support network
Man, where would I be without the people around me.
I am such a huge fan of strong relationships. Some people jokingly say Jesus’ greatest miracle was still having 12 close friends at the age of 30, but I’ve learned in life that this is actually a necessity.
We need people. They need us. And not just a few people, which becomes super dangerous and even unfair to the people close to us. But a lot. As people come and go throughout the seasons, we need to ensure we maintain a healthy and growing set of relationships and supports.
An example I’ve always found so poignant is comparing an umbrella to a house, and asking, “Which is easier to knock over?”. The umbrella of course – it only has one support that it puts all its weight and dependency on. When that one support fails, it’s even likely that the umbrella may become angry or entitled towards the one support it had put all its expectation on.
Conversely, good luck knocking over a house without 25 years of termite damage or a wrecking crew. The house has multiple supports, and it has a lot of strong supports as well. Even if one or a few of the supports were to break off or fall away, the house would still be able to stand because it’s weight is distributed and held up by the remainder.
Now I’m not talking about living umbrellas or houses that have become possessed, I hope you can follow the analogy here.
We can either live our lives like an umbrella or like a house. I see it happen all the time when husbands or wives put all their emotional dependency on expectation on their spouse, and then build steady and increasing resentment until they explode at them for not being able to hold all their weight. I’ve seen the same thing happen in family and friendship groups as well, if the expectation is only on a few to carry all the weight.
I’m going to set you and all your friends free – one person cannot carry all your emotional weight. And usually at the scene of the crime of mental illness is someone doing this to others, or someone allowing it to happen to themselves.
I am very grateful that well before this season hit my life that I had great connections, mentors and relationships that spoke into my life and helped me keep going. I credit these relationships greatly to helping me get through depression and anxiety.
An unpopular, divisive word that carries great consequence – this really helped set me free.
I had first learned about boundaries through my family church when I was about 11 years old. We had a few speakers come through at the time and talk about how important they were, referencing an instruction given to the Jews that they should not begin to move ancient markings or boundaries between each other as this would set off conflict. Lo and behold, wherever there is conflict or tension, a boundary has or is about to be violated.
As I’ve grown older, I have learned a lot more about how important these can be in every relationship, from various authors such as Dr Cloud, Dr John Townsend, TD Jakes, John and Helen Burns, Gary Chapman, Dr Kevin Leman, and a whole stack of psychological reference and research material online. Just type in the word “boundaries” and find out how much research exists on this topic. Necessary Endings, Avoiding Dark Places, Boundaries, even side references in counselling and marriage books… so many good resources out there to help you get through things.
All of us have boundaries. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you this – do you have a front door? Do you have walls around your house? Do you have a fence around your yard? Do you leave your car doors open when you drive? When you eat in public, do you sit at one massive table, or a more targeted table for who you’re eating with? Then you have boundaries.
The view of boundaries is that in the same way we maintain physical boundaries for our own wellbeing or even safety, they are important emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well. And we see even the greatest, most spiritual, most structured and driven people in history live lives where there are very clear lines of demarcation.
My experience in depression made me realise I had been carrying too much for too long and not being fair enough to myself in a number of circumstances. I had taken on an unspoken responsibility to help others make decisions that they weren’t ready or willing to make, and as such, was constantly frustrating myself and draining the battery faster than PokemonGO on a hot summer day.
Re-evaluating and re-setting some healthier boundaries came at great cost, as it will if you decide to explore doing this in your own life. I needed to set some initial boundaries while I was deep in my recovery and counselling period that I could then relax a bit more when I was feeling better, but things were never the same.
And unfortunately it may be for you as it has been for me that some boundaries became unacceptable to other people and a source of great turmoil and pain for them. Because we all live and exist in systems involving multiple lives, any change in our lives can cause a dramatic change in the lives of others. If people have become used to a certain way of doing life, it can be super unsettling and even damaging to them to have the rules change. I am sad to say that setting healthier boundaries for me has meant I have lost some people from my life completely because of what I had to do to recover, flowing from the initial decision even to fallout a number of years later.
But I have no doubt that healthy boundaries helped me get through depression and anxiety, and continue to be a reason why I have not since dipped as low as I did at my lowest point (probably about April/May 2017, so well behind me now). You can’t control other people – you can only control yourself.
Another story that comes to mind from Henry Cloud again was where a concerned father came to him for counselling. He said, “Doc, my son has so many problems, he has a drugs problem so I had to bail him out, he has a commitment problem so I had to pay the university to keep him going, and he has a money problem so I have to keep him cashed up”. Doctor Henry looked at him and said, “Your son doesn’t have a problem – you do”. He had been making his son’s problems his own because his son wasn’t taking it on himself. Likewise, we can often overcompensate for the decisions and indecisions of others, instead of realising we are only truly responsible for ourselves.
I should note as well that if you’re in the boat where your physical safety is compromised, get help immediately. Even if someone else is mentally ill, we’ve seen it happen enough times in recent history that even this isn’t an excuse for cruelty or abuse.
#5: Finding the source/s
“Matt, you say that you really wanted those things, but I think you say you want them because you actually needed them, and you call them wants because you thought you would never have those needs met”.
The realization that set me on the path to recovery.
Man, I recommended professional help, but I’ll warn you now. If you want to recover, it takes a lot of work. We spend many years developing depression or becoming anxious, so no wonder it takes a long time to recover as well.
But if you put in the hard work, it doesn’t have to last forever.
My counsellor had me doing all sorts of very heavy emotional work. I made a list of every single painful event in my life. I learned about dysfunctional roles and the systems we put in place to survive. I was doing a sustained deep dive of my heaviest thoughts and feelings to find what had been the event or the key themes that had led me to this dark place.
I think a lot of people avoid recovery because things actually have to get worse before they get better.
An analogy that always stuck with me was the thought of being shot by an arrow. It’s painful, it’s awful, but the body may eventually grow around the wound. You learn to live with the arrow. It’s painful every now and again, but it’s scarier to think of what it means to fully heal. You have to take the arrow out. And that means reopening the wound, or possibly creating an even worse one.
And that means it hurts exactly the same, if not worse, all over again.
But until the arrow is gone, it will continue to affect and infect every area of your life. The wound can even become gangrenous and fatal.
Healing is a choice, and an important one. And as the saying goes, it might not be your fault you became broken, but it is your fault if you stay broken.
#6: My faith
If you know me, have been reading my writings for a while, or can recognise certain sayings and references in even the above, you would know that I am a Christian. I have been since I was a young boy, and in an increasingly uncertain world, my faith has become ever the more certain.
And I think people don’t always consider the implications of what you do or don’t believe about the spiritual side of your life.
If you believe that all life is an accident, for instance, that all life is purposeless and devoid of meaning, then this belief can drive you further into a depressed state and cause to feel and live like everything is pointless. If you center your life around a self-made destiny or creating your own path, then you may feel more content to wander around in the wilderness of apathy and dissatisfaction instead of towards the life you could be living.
To get through depression and anxiety means to start to find some answers to the bigger, soul searching questions of our universe, cause they often profoundly influence how we get into those negative states, and how we move beyond them.
For me, the many messages of my faith kept me going through even the darkest of times. A standout message for me at this time and even today was Complete The Cross by Steven Furtick. More on that in How Easter Changed My Life and Why Atheism Makes No Sense to Me.
I am happy to say I am in a very good place in my life right now. The last few years have been much better and brighter, and I have not returned under the dark cloud which once hung over my head. And I’ve been very privileged and honoured to see a number of people do the same in their own lives.
And that’s my hope and prayer for you as you read this. In sharing my heart and journey I hope that you are free to help others in theirs.
And if it’s you who’s doing it tough and you’re struggling under the dark cloud, I just want you to know that you’re not the only one, that I’ve been there too, and just like I did, I’m believing you’re going to find your way out.
How about you? How did you get through depression and anxiety?