I feel something subtle happen when I don’t make my mental health the enemy.
I’ve resisted mental health labels for a long time. For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I didn’t tell anyone that I experienced anxiety or depression.
I kept it to myself. I believed that talking about it made it stronger.
Many of my experiences during that time were a struggle, and I went through them in self-imposed isolation. I avoided diagnoses and mistrusted psychiatrists. That all ended when I became a mom.
When it was just me, I could grin and bear it. I could white-knuckle my way through anxiety and depression, and no one was the wiser. But my son called me out on it. Even as a toddler, I saw how my subtle moods affected his behavior and sense of well-being.
If I seemed cool on the surface but felt anxious underneath, my son acted out. When the adults around me couldn’t detect anything, my son showed through his actions that he knew something was up.
This was especially clear when we traveled.
If I had some anticipatory anxiety as we prepared for a flight, my son would start bouncing off the walls. All of his listening skills went out the window. He seemed to gain an inhuman amount of energy.
He turned into a pinball in the security line, and it took every ounce of my focus to keep him from bumping into strangers or knocking over someone’s suitcase. The tension would mount until I could breathe a sigh of relief at our gate.
When I settled down, he was perfectly calm.
Once I experienced the link between my emotions and his enough times that it was beyond a reasonable doubt, I started to reach out. I started to realize that I couldn’t do it alone, that it actually made me a better parent to ask for support.
Although I didn’t want to ask for help when it came to me, everything was different when it came to my son.
Still, when I seek support for symptoms of anxiety and depression, I don’t approach it as a zero-sum game.
That is, it isn’t me versus my mental health.
Although the difference may seem like semantics, I feel something subtle happen when I don’t make my mental health the enemy.
Instead, I think of anxiety and depression as part of what makes me human. These states aren’t who I am but experiences that come and go.
I’m not “battling” them so much as I am watching them waft in and out of my life, like a breeze might stir a curtain over a windowpane. Their presence is temporary, even if it takes a long time to pass.
I don’t have to feel as though I’m at war. Instead, I can think of these passing states as familiar visitors, which makes them feel much more innocuous.
This doesn’t mean I don’t take steps to take care of myself and improve my state of mind. I certainly do, and I’ve learned that I need to. At the same time, I don’t have to spend so much energy resisting, correcting, and faking it.
I’m able to strike a balance between taking care and taking charge. Pushing away a deep pattern takes a tremendous amount of energy. Noticing that it’s come to visit takes something different.
That something is acceptance.
I get a deep sense of relief from reminding myself that I don’t have to “fix” my mental states. They aren’t wrong or bad. They just are. In doing this, I’m able to choose not to identify with them.
Instead of, “Oh no, I feel anxious again. Why can’t I just feel normal? What’s wrong with me?” I can say, “My body is feeling scared again. It’s not a nice feeling, but I know it will pass.”
Anxiety is often an automatic response, and I don’t have much control over it once it’s acute. When I’m there, I can either fight it, run from it, or surrender to it.
When I fight, I usually find that I make it stronger. When I run, I find that I only get temporary relief. But in those rare moments when I can truly surrender and let it pass through me, I’m not giving it any power.
It has no hold over me.
A wonderful resource I’ve used that teaches this “surrender” approach to anxiety is ILovePanicAttacks.com. The founder is Geert, a man from Belgium who experienced anxiety and panic throughout much of his life.
Geert went on his own personal mission to get to the bottom of his anxiety, and shares his findings through his very humble and down-to-earth course.
From diet changes to meditation, Geert experimented with everything. While he isn’t a certified health professional, he shares his honest experience as a real person seeking to live life without fear. Because his journey is so real and familiar, I found his perspective refreshing.
In the course is a specific technique called the tsunami method. The idea is that if you allow yourself to surrender, much like you would if you were being carried away by a huge tidal wave, you can simply float through the experience of anxiety rather than resist it.
After giving it a try, I recommend this approach as a different perspective on panic and anxiety. It’s extremely freeing to realize that you can let go of the struggle against fear and instead allow yourself to float with it.
The same theory can be true for depression, but it looks a little different.
When depression happens, I find that I have to keep on keeping on. I have to keep working out, keep doing my job, keep caring for my kid, keep eating my veggies. I have to do these things even though it can be really, really hard.
But what I don’t have to do is berate myself for feeling that way. I don’t have to have a battle with my mind that lists all the reasons I’m failing as a person and thus experiencing depression.
At this point in my life, I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a soul on earth who hasn’t felt depressed at least once in their life. I truly believe that the full spectrum of emotions is simply part of the human experience.
That’s not to make light of clinical depression. I certainly advocate that depression can and should be treated by licensed health professionals. Those treatments may look very different from one person to the next.
I’m speaking of an attitude shift in how I relate to my experience of depression. In fact, letting go of my resistance to diagnosis actually led me to seek help in the first place. I no longer felt threatened by the idea of being labeled.
Instead of allowing these feelings to define me as a person, I can take a detached point of view. I can say, “Here I am having a very human experience.” I don’t have to judge myself.
When I look at it this way, I don’t feel bad, less than, or isolated anymore. I feel much more connected to the human race. This is a very important shift, because so much of my experience of depression and anxiety has arisen from feeling disconnected.
If this perspective sounds intriguing, there are a few things you can try to put it into action.
Shift the narrative
Rather than using phrases like “I have depression,” you can say “I’m experiencing depression.”
When I think about “having” depression, I imagine I’m carrying it around in a backpack on my back. When I think about experiencing it, I’m able to put the backpack down. It’s just passing by. It isn’t hitching a ride.
Just dropping that possessive can make a big difference. When I don’t identify with my mental health symptoms, they have less hold over me.
Even though it seems small, words have a lot of power.
Practice the third way
We automatically get propelled into fight or flight. It’s only natural. But we can consciously choose another option. That’s acceptance.
Acceptance and surrender are different from running away, because even in running away we’re still taking action. Surrender is so effective and so elusive because it is, in essence, nonaction. To surrender is to take your will out of the equation.
One way to do this is through accepting depression and anxiety as states of mind. Our state of mind is not who we are, and it can change.
This kind of surrender doesn’t mean we give up and crawl back into bed. It means we surrender our need to fix, to be different than we are, and can simply accept what we’re experiencing right now.
Another very tangible way to surrender, especially when experiencing anxiety, is to practice the tsunami method.
Ask for help
Asking for help is another form of surrender. Take it from a seasoned white-knuckler who used to avoid vulnerability at all costs.
When things get to be too much, sometimes reaching out is the only thing to do. There’s not a person on earth who’s too far gone for help, and there are millions of professionals, volunteers, and regular people who want to provide it.
After resisting reaching out for so many years, I decided to change my strategy.
When I did, a friend actually thanked me for reaching out to her. She told me it made her feel like she was doing something good, like she had a bigger purpose. I was relieved to hear that I hadn’t been a burden, and thrilled that she actually felt I had helped her, too.
I realized that holding back was keeping us from a closer connection. Once I exposed my vulnerabilities, that connection happened naturally.
In asking for help, not only are we allowing ourselves to be supported, but we’re also affirming the humanity of those we allow to help us. It’s a closed-loop system.
We simply can’t survive without each other, and expressing vulnerability breaks down the barriers between us.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for anxiety through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.