When Depression Says ‘You Can’t,’ and Anxiety Says, ‘You Shouldn’t’

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Mark Tannett

Depression is relentless. It seeks to steal your identity and your sense of self. It says you can’t achieve anything and you will never be good enough, and once it has a hold of you, it refuses to let go. The voice on your shoulder, the feeling in the pit of your stomach, the vacant stare when your brain gives in and the total infinite emptiness when it takes everything you have to give. It is horrible, it is both intensely painful and numb, and it is something that is incredibly difficult to handle.

And then you have anxiety. Where the depression says you can’t do it, anxiety says you shouldn’t. It tells you there’s nothing to gain from trying to help yourself because the risk is higher than the potential reward. Things will get worse if you try so it’s better not to try. It’s better to sit with your depression and let it fester. It’s better to let depression slowly take over your entire being while you sit staring at the walls or lying awake at 4 in the morning trying to still your mind.

For me, anxiety manifests itself in avoidant personality disorder as well, where I am so conflict-averse and so sensitive to any kind of criticism that I will actively avoid any situation where there is any risk of having my inadequacies and weaknesses highlighted. And in turn, this makes me very sensitive to praise and can lead to unhealthy idealism of others or create attachments to others which are inappropriate.

Anxiety is not necessarily an unhealthy thing when the mind interprets threats correctly and responds appropriately to them. But the hypersensitivity to the world around me means I can’t interact properly and I can’t get out of my head. And when I can’t engage with the world, I can’t combat the numbness because there’s no stimulation for my brain to give me what I need to deal with the depression.

Yoga and mindfulness have been brilliant at combating my anxiety when my depression has allowed me to muster enough energy to practice them, but I can’t help feeling that I won’t be able to deal with my depression without dealing with my anxiety first because if I can deal with my anxiety, I can be more in the world and do things that will improve my mood like eating right, exercising more and, most importantly, engaging with others and feeling part of a society or community where I belong which would, by far, be the most important element of improving my mental health.

I don’t know whether I have the right mentality or I’m tackling things the right way round. I don’t know whether I’ll succeed or if I’ll see the light at the end of what seems like a very dark tunnel. But I do know that my depression and anxiety are not me despite what they tell me every day. And at some point, like every child who eventually stands up to the playground bully, I will have the confidence to do the same and tell my depression and anxiety their words and actions are not acceptable and I am better than that.

I am not my illness. I am in recovery. I will be well.

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