Tricks of the Trade: Practical Remedies That Lessen Depression and Anxiety

Lutsen, MN. Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Facing and resolving the major impediments in our life will bring us to a better lot in our life, one that surpasses having no impediments at all. Assuredly what doesn’t destroy us will only make us stronger. That’s the point of all suffering. —Anonymous

Numbers of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. If you are someone who has continual lows with less energy and periods of jitteriness for no apparent reason, welcome to the club. Mood disorders and suicidal thoughts among children, teens and adults are especially rampant right now for a variety of reasons.  Even people with malaise who have no mood disorders are not very hopeful right now. One only has to listen to “The Evening News” or read the newspaper to be aware of how bummed out many of us are about social difficulties. A lot of us are told how bad things are and how divided our society is without having any solutions as to how to make things better. We hear the bad news, but we don’t know how to improve our happiness.

Let’s focus on how we can turn things around in this article—to have less depression and anxiety. I’ll share with you the tricks of the trade from my 40 years of clinical experience, most of which I learned right from my clients. Many of these aids go much deeper than typical self-help remedies and are generally helpful. Some of them are surprisingly simple. Clearly these suggestions will not work for everybody since some mood disorders—Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder—require specialized treatment. I believe that nearly all of us can move beyond depression and anxiety in our lives despite how burdensome and intractable they seem to be. I will discuss when and how to get specialized help.  Let’s get started.

What is depression and anxiety? How can I recognize that I have a mood disorder?

Too many of us are stuck in our past and fail to see the real value of letting at least one other person deeply know and accept us.If you have persistent feelings of apathy and numbness accompanied by low get-up-and-go for more than two weeks, and prefer to not be around people, then you are likely depressed. Being depressed is a lot like having a flu—you just don’t feel like doing anything but don’t have the fever. Anxiety is a sensation of impending doom with no explanation, accompanied by a jitteriness, rapid breathing, occasional panic, and obsessive thoughts of coming danger which are not explained by believable causes. It is like being locked in a lion’s den and fearing lion attacks even when there no lions present. Often many depressions have underlying anxiety symptoms. So, when the depression gets lessened then sometimes anxiety symptoms occur. All of these symptoms generally occur in mentally healthy people who are feeling overly responsible for other people’s needs or lack confidence in their ability to face conflicts in their own lives despite already having the strengths to overcome these conflicts. Such people generally feel more maladjusted than they really are and fail to see the life-saving value in their emotional turmoil. Indeed, it is the people who are numb and indifferent to others that have the greatest psychological challenges. Interestingly enough, most mood disorders go away on their own after a period of 18 months even if untreated (but of course can recur if left untreated).

Tricks of the trade

I believe that mood disorders are the result of disturbed relationships that occur in one’s current life or are re-experienced in one’s present life but actually occurred in one’s earlier life, usually in childhood. It can be hard to believe that what troubles us today happened years ago or else is happening to us right now under our nose.  Often, we need to have an extra set of eyes to see what we can’t see and to heal what we can’t resolve. Healing a mood disorder is a two-person project since the wound that created it was a two-person undertaking. It is generally impossible to heal mood disorders on their own much like learning ballroom dancing requires a partner. It takes two to tango. It is best done with a challenging and compassionate professional helper.

  1. The best way to treat a mood disorder is to work with a therapist in a collaborative relationship. You could get good help from Hamm Clinic, Walk-In Counseling Center or contact the MN Psychological Association or MN Clinical Social Work Society for referrals. Most practitioners have on-line introductions to see if he or she fits your needs. I recommend doing a phone interview to see if your likely helper has a good initial feel to you. You may ask, “How do you handle my feedback to you as part of our work?” “How challenging are you to clients?” “What methods do you use to help clients?” The relationship you have with this helper is the most important part of therapeutic success.
  2. On your own there are many things you can do to help yourself. First, you may want to look at mood disorders in a new light. The symptoms you have are there to protect you (Oh lucky you!) and alert you to unrecognized suffering inside yourself. They are your body’s way of having you take a break from life, much like having to stay in bed when you have the flu. So, give yourself a break when you are overwhelmed with life. When your break feels like it is taking too long, then get into action. Work on your exercise, diet, sleep, and social connections. Start slow. Take a ten minute walk each day and add five minutes each week. Eat whole grain foods and salads and avoid processed and salty food.  Stay clear of alcohol, which is a depressant, and drink a cup of green tea each day. The exercise and diet changes will feel good for your body and your mood. Work on your sleep hygiene. Get an alarm clock and go to bed early at a regular time. Try to establish a regular sleep time. Avoid exercise and caffeine near bedtime. Read a soothing book before bed to make you drowsy and take your mind off worries. If you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep, get out of bed and either turn on a old movie on your TV or return to your book. Your mind will try to solve problems at night, often obsessively. Try to distract yourself from such work. Escape into some mindless distractions and return to your bed. Breathe through your nose and exhale. Your body will fall asleep typically. Don’t scold yourself if this plan doesn’t work for you. You may need to talk with a sleep specialist or doctor to get additional help. Seek out a sleep disorder clinic through your doctor or health insurer. Once your sleep is regular and restful, a good part of your mood disorder will be lessened. Usually, getting a half hour of walking in during the day will help you sleep.
  3. Do some reading on mood disorders. I recommend the following books: Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D., You Are Not Alone by Ken Duckworth, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple by Seth J. Gillian, The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worrying by Robert L. Leahy, Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality Training in Your Life by Robert Alberti, Ph. D. and Michael Emmons, Ph.D. You can become an expert on your own mood disorder and get skilled on lessening your symptoms in most cases. Certainly, there are some disorders that are more complicated than those discussed in these books. In that case, it is best to get specialized help from a competent specialist in mood disorders, as I discussed above. Generally, there is help for all mood disorders but you may have to keep seeking the right helper. An excellent organization to assist your search is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Phone: 651-645-2948.
  4. Start having relationships with people who accept you as you are. The biggest impediment to getting over a mood disorder is refusing to accept friendship and love from caring others. Most people who have chronic anxiety and depression have been significantly hurt by other people who should have loved them. So, we tend to see people as dangerous, not set limits with them and we avoid them. Unfortunately, when you avoid all people, you lose the loving comfort of good people who could help you considerably. Realize there are many good compassionate people in this world, probably including many people you already know. Most of us are too scared to let other people love us based on our past experiences. This is understandable, but not the final solution. It is best to not live in the past and see who is in your life now and has some kindness, who can be there for you. Others have not had your experiences and are less skilled in treating mood disorders, but they may be quite kind and be good listeners. It’s unwise to let other people give you any advice on your moods. You are the real expert on your moods and don’t need bad advice. What you will likely need is someone who can just sit with you, let you be who you are, and support your own efforts to care for yourself. Essentially, you have something to teach others about their mood disorders. After all, you have a lot more real life training on mood disorders than most other people. Embrace your own expertise on what you know and be the guru you already are.
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A story of recovery

Some treatments for a mood disorder can take years. Others can be short-term and be rather straight forward, as the following example illustrates. It is always the relationship between the helper and the “helpee” that makes the difference. The following is a fictional story based on an amalgam of real clinical experiences which illustrates what I mean.

Joel was a quite self-effacing and pleasant 50-year-old man whose life was a tale of woe. Getting professional help was uncomfortable because he felt he should be able to solve problems on his own and wasn’t worth the money required to get help. His depression had gone on for years and he saw his affliction as his cross to bear. Recently, he was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired and he decided to give me a try. I had two striking reactions to Joel at the start of our work. I felt weighed down by the years of his suffering and got depressed listening to him. I could see why Joel was having trouble making friends. Joel spent too much time on the negatives in his life and very little time on his own strengths. Also, I appreciated his kindness when he talked of others and the relationship he had with his dog, Paco, a feisty chihuahua. He was worried that his dog was getting older, and he would have nobody if Paco passed away. He wished he could have a girlfriend instead. I couldn’t believe that Joel wouldn’t have any friends given how kind he was to animals.

So, I suggested that he brought Paco into my office so that I could meet the love of his life. Joel kept talking about himself as a loser. I said he couldn’t be as bad as he described himself as Paco was nuts about him and that dogs always have a sixth sense of who is really capable of loving them. During our session, Paco sat right at Joel’s feet, he explored my office with curiosity, he accepted Joel’s direction and allowed me to pet him when Joel said it was OK. Of course, I fell in love with his pet and we were off to a good start. I pointed out the deep bond between Joel and his dog and congratulated Joel on being such an adequate caregiver, not something just anybody could do. Joel’s mood took a turn for the better as he recognized he had never seen his dog as a reflection of himself. I told Joel that he had the right formula for dogs, but we just need to tweak his skills to include people, like a real girlfriend.

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Joel and I spent nearly a year together reviewing how he had come to have such a low opinion of himself. Joel mentioned that he was so kind to his dog because he didn’t want to treat his pet like he had been treated by his parents. His folks gave him all the basics—food, clothing, and shelter—but failed to establish a caring bond with him as a boy. Joel mentioned that he didn’t want to say bad things about his mom and dad as that would disrespect their memory. I said I understood. Joel felt his problems were of his own making. I asked Joel if he would ever not pet Paco or speak kindly to him. He said he wouldn’t even dream of doing such things to his pet. I asked him, “Why wouldn’t you deserve to receive the same from your own parents and from yourself?” Joel had no answer for that question. He had big wide tears in his eyes, and it was clear we were off to a good start.

So, we spent about a year on recognizing all the ways he would not allow other people and himself to care about him. He was not aware of all the ways he neglected himself and how he distanced himself from people who tried to be his friend. Joel felt he should be self-sufficient and not need other people. I had him read a book on cognitive-behavioral therapy of treatment of depression and another book on developmental trauma. He started examining the myriad of ways he pushed me away from caring for him and examined all the irrational beliefs he had about himself. Then I asked him to challenge those beliefs and behaviors. For example, one major belief he had was that people don’t really like him. I questioned how he could think that way when he, in fact, didn’t allow others to know him at a personal level, just as he was treated as a boy. I nudged him to see how much his pet Paco loved him, how he sat by his feet. One day, after a time in therapy, Paco started sitting at my feet during our sessions. I said that was a good sign as he was letting Paco know that it is OK to let me love him. Paco only did this occasionally and was really glued to Joel. After that session Joel realized that he too was allowing me to love him, that his dog was teaching him what to do. Shortly thereafter Joel joined a dog walking group at his local park and met a young lady with her dog. And the rest is history.  Joel had found a way to let other people love him and he was less wounded by his growing up years. His depression was long gone.

Too many of us are stuck in our past and fail to see the real value of letting at least one other person deeply know and accept us. But all that can change when we do.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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Last Updated on December 30, 2022

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