Mental Health Awareness Week: ten steps to freedom from depression and anxiety
1. Live in the here and now
Instead of continually rehashing the past or endlessly planning your future, set time aside each day to focus on what’s happening to you in the here and now. Practice the art of “mindfulness” by using all your senses. This means noticing your environment. Become aware of the scents, sounds and emotions present. Notice how objects feel, as well as how they look. Resist comparing, passing judgment or criticising. Simply observe. You will start to feel awake, aware and alive, and look forward to the peace and tranquility this way of being affords you. When you slow down, you can appreciate the small pleasures in life instead of being mindlessly driven by routine.
2. Remove the “curse of the should's” in your life and take up new challenges
When you tell yourself you or others “should” or “shouldn’t” do something, you’re setting up rules. These rules refer to a sense of obligation, something you automatically feel you need to do to please another person, or someone needs to do to please you, or to live up to some standard you’ve picked up through social conditioning is “important”, “vital”, “essential”. Do you find yourself using such language? This isn't about disposing of your moral compass, it's about reflecting upon how it was formed and who is leading you along which path. Do you find yourself imposing views on others that, upon reflection, may only be a partial view, a gaze provided by authority figures that you respect? Are you convinced that you know better about concepts, countries and other phenomena in the world of which you have no personal experience? If this resonates, ask yourself if you may have become stuck in a cycle of virtue-signalling self-righteousness. Are you constantly trying to prove that you are "good" and therefore superior and infallible when it comes to the human condition? Release yourself from the trap of living by either should permissions or shouldn’t injunctions. Do more of what brings you joy. Try out something new and challenging regularly. In some ways, our brain works like our muscles. If you challenge and “stretch” your mind regularly, you’ll keep it agile and feel awake and alive. New learning and opening your mind to different possibilities creating solutions is exhilarating, when you’re loving what you’re doing, you will never feel bored and time will fly by.
3. Quit complaining
If you are a venter you will find yourself “ranting”, completely uninterested in hearing any solutions that may help becoming a “help-refusing complainer”. Or maybe you feel sorry for yourself and seek pity or sympathy. At times you believe your life is worse than anyone else's, and you may look for others to comfort you. Even if they do, perhaps it won’t feel as if it's enough or you may reject their efforts for other reasons. You may become really stuck in a cycle of chronic complaining. In such manner, for you, life means existing in a permanent, perpetual state of complaint, complaining about the same thing over and over.
Whenever we complain, thousands of neurons are triggered and form a neural network that the mind finds easier to follow, automatically reacting to everyday life feeling as if every day is “Groundhog Day”. The cycle of negativity takes hold, leaving us flattened and about to fold. Thoughts around injustice, unfairness and being “disrespected” lead to anger and hatred.
Use mindfulness practice to catch yourself when you complain. Do not listen to your critical voice and beat yourself up. Instead, simply notice. From here you can decide what you need to do to change. Focus on what makes you feel grateful and appreciative. There is no right or wrong. It can be anything. In this way, you will build the foundations for a new neural network creating pleasant feelings and feel happier.
4. Stop rescuing others, simply be kind
“Rescuing” another where the only way you can feel happy and loved is dependent upon being needed by others overlaps with the concept of “co-dependency”. Nobody enjoys being around a martyr. By insisting on doing everything yourself, you never give those around you the chance to feel needed and may block their growth, development and feelings of confidence and self-worth that come with autonomy (independence). Furthermore, if you overcommit or sacrifice your own needs you risk becoming resentful and angry. Accept that everyone has limitations and ask for help occasionally. On the other hand, human beings are social animals and our brains are designed to reward us with pleasurable feeling when we behave unselfishly. Find balance. Perhaps once every day, show an act of kindness towards another person. You’ll feel happier and those around you will feel better too. Giving another individual your support can help alleviate both yours and their feelings of loneliness in times of isolation.
5. When circumstances change, adapt and develop a growth mindset
We often find ourselves inconvenienced by a change of plan or finding out that our expectations are not going to be met. If you are a rigid and inflexible thinker, you believe that how you are is a fixed and determined state. You will also incorrectly judge others in the same way. You will often feel depressed at your lack of luck and chance in the world. For you, change creates an overwhelming feeling of anxiety that leads to anger, either causing you to lash out at others, or cause harm to yourself.
Learn how to have a growth mindset. This will help you believe that you and your life can improve according to the effort that you make. Furthermore, the combination of effort over achievement leads to feelings of happiness. Achievements are a combination of luck and circumstances that are often beyond your control. Personal effort only lies within your own control. Therefore, when you focus on and praise your effort, you’ll feel more in control of your life’s direction. With this growth mindset, challenges are seen simply as obstacles to overcome with new opportunities the end result.
6. Take gentle exercise and make sure you have enough sleep every day
If you are feeling depressed, you can find yourself curling up under the covers, lying on the sofa or finding reasons to stop yourself venturing outside. Instead walk, steadily, jog, cycle or dance for at least 20 minutes every day. The key is to move gently but continuously rather than to push your limits. You’ll feel more energised and alert immediately. As your endorphins are raised, we enjoy a sense of general wellbeing that is likely to last for an hour or more at least.
Broken and reduced sleep means that you will feel stressed, your energy will be low and your ability to pay attention will be impaired. Making sure that you sleep well and for enough time improves your ability to be self-disciplined, your sense of well-being generally leading to feeling more capable and confident.
7. Learn to think higher and feel deeper
Notice what happens to when you “trash” another individual, group or idea? Whether in your head or verbally to others? When you gossip, criticise or judge another harshly? When you really sit with your feelings, do you feel happy with yourself at such thoughts, or sickened by yourself? If you recognise you have become so used to thinking and feeling down on yourself and others, put yourself on a “seven day clean thinking diet”. Focus on making your interactions with others count. Be creative. Meaningful. Engaging socially at a deeper level will create emotional connections and help you understand the dignity of difference. Spend at least 15 minutes every day in nature and you will become aware that there is a force, a power higher than yourself, that you are not the centre of the universe, simply a precious human life and can find your true path.
8. Stop comparing yourself to others
Do you criticise yourself harshly, take yourself to task expecting higher standards from yourself than others or strive to be the same as others? Do you give yourself enough time and attention for grooming, food that you enjoy, time to be alone and time to reflect upon your life every day? If you don’t then you are not valuing yourself. You will burn out and become incapable of service to others. Are you constantly comparing yourself to others and finding yourself falling short? Instead, praise your positive qualities, respect your own needs and desires, and be kind to yourself whenever possible. Value your unique self. Ask yourself this question, given your own unique set of circumstances, the family you grew up in, your position in that family, the pre-generational history, your home, your friends, the way you look, the way you think, why does it make any sense to compare yourself to others? Doesn’t that make you feel miserable? Furthermore, by using the same reasoning, why do you want to “fit”? Instead, learn to fit with yourself only and become the best version of yourself. You will feel courageous enough for adventure as you nurture and develop your unique sense of self.
9. Take responsibility for your choices and find your purpose
Do you find it difficult to or avoid taking responsibility for your choices? Do you tend to blame others for your setbacks and failures? Do you have difficulty accepting that mistakes are simply a form of feedback so that we can learn and grow? Do you believe it's better not to try so you can't fail? Have you become so absorbed by your pastimes and distractions that you have forgotten there is a limit to such pursuits? As such have you lost meaning and purpose in your life? Despite the “busyness” you have created, do you feel “dead”? Project your mind forward as if you are at the end of your life. What is it that you will regret if you have not done? Cast your mind back to dreams and hopes you experienced as a child. How relevant are they now? Continue to reflect on what makes you happy or sad, what you want that you don’t have now and what is your true passion.
10. Move away from being ego-led towards soul-led
Are you encountering a world where you and those with whom you interact practice dishonesty, deviousness, closed-mindedness, disharmony, mean-mindedness, divisiveness, elitism, extremism, exclusivity, hatred and taking advantage of others? Do you become enraged when your desires, cravings and ambitions are not satisfied? If so you are self-serving and your suffering is ego-led.
Instead, be soul-led by understanding your desires, noticing them instead of being a slave to them, become aspirational, learn how to be of service to others, become honest, authentic straightforward, kind, transparent, congruent, genuine, harmonious, open-minded, warm, compassionate, loving, generous, thoughtful, inclusive, supportive, encouraging and giving to others.
You will move away from depression and anxiety and experience feelings of bliss, contentment, peace, tranquillity and harmony.
In time, practice thinking and feeling compassionate towards those who are also stuck in a cycle of negativity, never forget how you once thought and felt the same way. This doesn’t mean choosing to spend the majority of your time amongst individuals who are negative, pessimistic, boastful, self-serving, impatient, intolerant and spiritually immature in other ways. It simply means feeling compassion for those who have not yet found their way in the world.
“I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains” Anne Frank
If you feel daunted at the journey ahead and not sure where to start, find a therapist who can support you on your journey towards developing a strong sense of self. Find someone with whom you can interact in a real way. A therapist who has undertaken their own journey to the self. If you are struggling with addictions, then a 12-step programme is ideal to engage in alongside therapy. However, regardless of intervention, whether CBT, existential, person-centred, psychodynamic or analytic or any other kind of psychotherapy, counselling or behavioural therapy, research has proven that it is your motivation to change and the relationship with your therapist that is key to healing.
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About Amanda Perl
I am a BACP accredited integrative counsellor and existential psychotherapist, CBT practitioner, member of the British Psychological Society and course lead stage 4 BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects the belief that each of us is unique with potential for growth and development and can move forwards in our own way.