During the summer before my senior year of college some very strange things started happening to me. Gradually I began to feel acutely uneasy in totally quotidian, unremarkable situations. This was increasingly unsettling because I had always been a very confident, self-assured kid, competent or better at most things, who had experienced very negligible amounts of trauma.
Nevertheless, I soon found myself vomiting on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. I would get butterflies in my stomach and throw up before dozens of activities. I threw up if I tried to do anything that was not strictly routine. I threw up before routine things that were supposed to make me feel good. I threw up for no reason at all. There was also a pervasive, amorphous sadness settling into my perception of things. Object-less sorrow. Source-less melancholia. Detached feelings of inscrutable loss. It was all sort of new, but it was clear that things were not heading in a good direction.
I kept these troubling developments mostly a secret, though. I made plans with my girlfriend at the time to take a day trip into Washington D.C. to visit the National Museum of Art and bum around the city. When I arrived at her house early on the morning of our planned trip, for coffee and breakfast, I could feel the dreaded, familiar unease awaken in my stomach. I guiltily declined the breakfast that was prepared for me out of fear that I would quickly disgorge the meal, shamefully, in the bathroom a few minute later.
When it was time to leave I felt worse. It was so bad I couldn’t keep it concealed any longer. I told my then-girlfriend, who knew I was having some trouble, that I was feeling unexplainably anxious, which was making me feel nauseated. Then I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
We did eventually leave and catch the train into D.C., but it took me almost two hours to feel normal again.
When I got home that night, I knew it was time to seek professional help and figure out what was going on. So I called up a psychiatrist in my small hometown and got an appointment. I was promptly diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I was prescribed Celexa and began taking it immediately. That was eight years ago. I’ve been taking Celexa everyday since.
This fall, in consultation with my doctor, I decided to begin the process of tapering off my medication. I had just survived a car crash that should’ve killed me, which led to some redoubled reflection. I was struggling, and had been struggling for some time, with feelings of aloofness, feelings of detachment, and a deep, abiding fatigue. Quite simply, it was occurring to me that my emotional range was not, in fact, very expansive and that this inability to feel certain pitches of emotion was probably affecting my behavior.
But I grappled with the idea of control. I think people who suffer anxiety and depression for long enough develop their own mental models around it. I had come to conceptualize my own depression as a beast that would appear, unannounced, inside my house and torment me until, just as arbitrarily, it left. I had no control. My resistance was white-knuckled endurance. If I could just endure, I would tell myself. Just endure. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Grit your teeth and weather the storm. Take the blows and get up again.
But this was exhausting.
At some point in late August, after my car accident, I began to re-conceptualize my relationship with my anxiety and depression. I’m not sure precisely where or how this new way of thinking emerged, or what thoughts, conscious and unconscious, led to its development. But I had some ideas.
The breakthrough was this: My depression is not a beast inside the house, one who comes and goes as it pleases, wreaks havoc capriciously, makes things miserable, and leaves without a word. My depression is a wolf outside the door. And I can make this house so inhospitable to its survival, so unappealing, so downright repulsive to this wolf that it will balk at entering. It might sniff around the door. It might paw the walls. But it will not want to come in.
This conceptual shift effectively tipped the balance of control to me. Rather than wait for the beast to inevitably enter the house and make things unpleasant, I would make the house anathema to it. Rather than endure the depression when it arrived and hovered over me, I would limit its opportunities for arrival. I would shrink its entrance points. I would make my own personal environment one in which depression could not live for long.
So I set about doing this. I decided the first thing I needed to do was develop a better relationship with certain emotions. Negative emotions are inevitable and healthy. But I was accustomed to spending significantly more time dwelling on these particular emotions than was healthy or useful. I decided that when negative emotions emerge, I’ll acknowledge them, accurately identify them, give them some time to be present, and then assertively, intentionally tell them to move it along. I’m certain I first discovered this technique in a podcast or a book, but I can’t pinpoint its origin precisely. I know Tony Robbins has his 60-second rule, which is pretty similar.
I also decided I needed to exercise more, regular exercise being something I still struggle to fit into my days and prioritize. I decided I needed to incorporate some mindfulness practice into my daily life, whether that’s a full-blown ten-minute meditation, or just taking some breaths and allowing myself to be present. I refocused my diet. I started taking some natural supplements, like vitamin D, to make sure I was covered on that front. And I tried to be more actively social. Which, of course, isn’t to suggest that, prior to my re-conceptualization of depression, I sat on the couch all day eating ice cream and watching the Flintstones. For most of my adult life I have been a high-functioning, gainfully employed, overeducated depressed person. I’ve just always carried around this conceptualization of anxiety and depression as a beast in my house, whose presence, absence, and activity I could not control.
Contrarily, I now conceptualize it as a situation over which I can exercise some control, to an extent. I can control my environment as best I can. I can make my environment one in which anxiety and depression cannot thrive, cannot linger, and cannot propagate.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know as well as anyone that anxiety and depression afflict each individual in a uniquely personal way, and that what has led to very meaningful results for me may be completely useless to someone else. And I’m not a medical professional of any kind. I’m just sharing my personal experience because I know how powerful a re-conceptualization can be, and I know how helpful it is to have multiple tools in your fighting-depression toolbox.
So that’s my mindset shift. Anxiety and depression are no longer a two-headed beast in the house. They’re a two-headed wolf at my door. And, by imagining what this wolf eats and survives on, I can essentially engineer a famine. I can construct my environment in such a way that this wolf will remain outside. Where it belongs.
Originally published at medium.com