Now and then we all seem to experience problems, for they are part of life. And when they arise, we instinctively realize we have the inner resources to overcome them. If we don't know how to conquer the obstacles we face, we search for answers from books, friends, advice columnists and elsewhere. But often, we already know what needs to be done. Yet, despite this knowledge, we remain stuck, unable to achieve our wishes. Examples are the overweight man who can't lose weight, the woman smoker who can't quit, or the negative thinker who can't smile, laugh, or jump for joy.
Why is it that despite knowing what needs to be done, we can't get it done? The answer is the solution to the problem isn't enough. There is a missing ingredient. You see, besides knowing how to overcome our problem, we also have to know how to get from where we are to where we want to be. What do I mean by that? Well, let's look at an example.
Larry wants to lose weight and realizes that he can do so by eating smaller portions, eliminating junk food, exercising, and drinking plenty of water, BUT he doubts he has what it takes to be successful. In a word, he doesn't believe he will succeed. The gap between where he is today (fat) and where he wants to be (slim and suave) seems to be too difficult to bridge. But there is always a gap between where we are and where we wish to be. That's why in addition to learning how to solve our problem, we also have to learn how to bridge gaps, how to believe we can get from where we are to where we want to be. The point is, we cannot achieve anything we cannot first imagine achieving. We cannot bridge the gap unless we can first imagine bridging it in our mind.
Two young men wrote, asking for help. One suffers from anxiety, the other depression. Although their problems are different, the treatment and cures for their problems are similar enough for me to deal with together. Neither of the men is incapacitated as they are both working. One of them, a 22-year-old law student from India made this telling comment, "I know it's good to view problems as opportunities, but I can't always do that." His statement reveals that he has an idea of what needs to be done, but doesn't know how to bridge the gap.
In the first part of this article I will list 14 things we can do to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression. The material I will cover is just common sense and will be familiar to most readers. Nevertheless, it is good to review these simple facts to optimize our well-being. In the second part, I will give a 4-step formula for bridging the gap from where we are to where we wish to be.
Part 1: Aids to Overcoming Depression and Anxiety and Optimizing Your Well-Being
1. Exercise. I cannot overstate the importance of exercise. In a study of 156 patients suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD), they were broken into three groups: exercise, medication, or a combination of medication and exercise. Sixteen weeks later, the patients of all groups experienced similar and significant improvements. In other words, exercise may match drugs for treating major depression and anxiety. The research was conducted by psychologist James Blumenthal, and their findings were published in the October 25, 1999, issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine.
Just how much exercise is necessary to relieve depression? A brisk 30-minute walk or jog three times a week is all that is necessary. To learn more about the healing power of exercise, see: "The Healing Power of Exercise: Your Guide to Preventing and Treating Diabetes, Depression, Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Arthritis, and More" by Linn Goldberg and Diane L. Elliot, Wiley, 2000.
2. Become curious. If you're suffering from depression, become curious. Investigate it. That's what Julian Lincoln Simon (1932~1998) did. As a result, this former professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute discovered a cure. You see, Professor Simon suffered from a deep, dark depression for 13 years. But spurred on by his curiosity and fascinated by new methods of treatment for depression, he immersed himself in the study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, refining it by adding his own method of treatment, which he called Self-Comparisons Analysis. Once he applied his own method, he cured his depression in just a few weeks, and remained depression-free until his death. To learn his method, read "Good Mood" by Julian L. Simon, Open Court Publishing Company, 1993.
If you cannot afford the book, you can read it for free online. You can also download the book for free, by going to the same web page and clicking on the menu where it says DOWNLOAD CHAPTER (it's not a chapter, but the entire book).
3. Fight anxiety, for "Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained." (Arthur Somers Roche, 1883~1935) To overcome anxiety, read, learn, and apply the principles in the following two books:
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated by David D. Burns, Harper, 1999.
- The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, Plume, 1999
4. Develop Interests and get active. For example, the 22-year-old law student who wrote enjoys photography and travel. Hobbies add enjoyment and pleasure to life while providing an outlet for our creativity. But engage in constructive activities as well. That is, set goals and attain new achievements as they will create a sense of pride in yourself. Also helpful is volunteering. When you help others who are less fortunate you benefit two ways. First, you feel worthwhile. Second, you appreciate your own good fortune.
5. Attack your problems with baby steps. Regardless of the size of your problem, there is always a step so small that you can take it now. And no matter how small it is, it'll take you closer to your goal. The important thing is to keep moving forward.
6. Remember, this, too, shall pass. When you're feeling blue or worried, remind yourself that feelings, like the wind, are fleeting. They will fade away. Allow that realization to comfort you.
7. Keep a positive mental attitude. Look for the bright side of every situation. Count your blessings and appreciate what you have. Be thankful for your problems, for they add to the adventure of life. If everything was easy for you, what would you accomplish? How can you lead a heroic life without obstacles to surmount?
8. Stop making demands and clinging to unrealistic expectations. Yes, it would be nice if everyone got out of your way while you're driving on the highway of life, but they won't. Accept that. Besides, why do you expect people to act better than you? If you want to have expectations, expect life to be an exciting adventure, rather than having your own way.
9. Don't get sucked into the dependency trap. During bouts of depression or anxiety, if you tell friends and family how terrible you feel, they may respond with tender, loving care. Their good intentions may act as a reward for your bad feelings and encourage you to remain depressed or anxious. They may feel guilty and want to `help' by doing some of your chores for you. But the only `help' that would be is help to remain stuck in a rut. Don't allow that to happen. Regardless how down or worried you feel, insist on acting like a hero, not a victim.
10. Don't identify with your condition. For example, never say to yourself, "I am depressed." Such thoughts keep you locked in the condition. You are not the condition of depression; rather, you are a man or woman temporarily feeling depressed. It's essential that you straighten that out in your mind. Beware, for once you identify with your condition, it becomes uncomfortable to change. Even the brilliant Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813~1855) became ensnared in this trap, causing him to say, "In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known -- no wonder, then, that I return the love."
11. Get along with and befriend others. Bad relationships will only add to your depression and anxiety. Having friends will add pleasure to your life and provide opportunities to practice acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. Getting along with others is quite simple, merely treat others as you would like them to treat you.
12. Did you realize that if you learn how to live in the present moment, it is impossible to be worried or anxious? Anxiety is fear of what may happen. In other words, it is fear of the future. But when we are in the present, we have no thought of the future, and, therefore, no anxiety. So, look into attending a mindfulness class or reading a good book on mindfulness to eliminate anxiety and experience the joy of the present moment.
13. To quickly change an emotion, simply act the way you want to feel. Act cheerful, smile, treat everyone you meet warmly. Even if you're just pretending, those who respond to you are not pretending, and their pleasant actions will make you feel better.
Even the Peanuts comic strip character Charlie Brown (who loves to be depressed) knows about the importance of acting how you wish to feel, for he said, "This is my depressed stance. When you're depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you'll start to feel better. If you're going to get any joy out of being depressed, you've got to stand like this."
14. Keep a journal. By transferring your negative thoughts from your mind to your journal, you weaken their grasp on you. And as you write you gain clarity and see new possibilities. To make your progress quicker, maintain a gratitude list, each day adding things you are grateful for. This exercise will keep you focused on positive thoughts and teach you from experience that we find what we look for. So, stop looking for something to complain about and start look for things to be thankful for. Also, keep a Victory Journal, listing all of your accomplishments and victories over fear, depression, and anxiety. Again, this will keep you focused on your success, not your failures. Finally, add your favorite inspirational and motivational quotes. As you reread them time and time again, they will become an integral part of you.
Part 2: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be in 4 Steps
To get from where we are today to where we want to be, we have to first see it in our mind's eye. We have to be able to clearly visualize it. The following four steps will release your power to bridge the gap.
1. Prepare yourself for a visualization session.
a) Find a quiet place. Select a place where you will be undisturbed, turn off cell phones, and remove any distractions. For example, you don't want a pet cat rubbing against you while you're trying to visualize.
b) Quiet the mind. During your visualization session, you will be imaging yourself as the person you want to become. But you cannot have a successful session if you mind is flooded with other thoughts. So, it is necessary to first quiet the mind. We do this by relaxing and focusing on a boring, tedious task.
To start, take a long, deep breath. Next, imagine a white, flashing number 1 against a dark background. Take another deep breath and imagine a white, flashing number 2. With each deep breath, feel yourself progressively relaxing. Continue until the count of 15. If you become distracted during your count, start again from the beginning. By the time you reach 15, without your mind wandering, your body will be relaxed and your mind quiet, setting the stage for you to begin your visualization session.
2. Visualize your success to completion. Break down your visualization into the following three stages.
a) See yourself in the early stages of change. What are the first things you will do to become the person you wish to be? For example, Tom suffers from depression and decides the easiest way for him to begin overcoming it is by keeping a journal. So, he imagines writing three victories and three things he is grateful for. He imagines doing this every day.
b) See yourself halfway there. For example, Tom now imagines himself halfway along the road to recovery. He imagines himself getting along with everyone. He sees himself smiling, shaking hands, patting others on the back, laughing, and even sharing a joke. He notices as he gets along with others, he is no longer stressed out. He sees himself relaxed and comfortable in the presence of others.
c) See yourself completely victorious. See yourself as the person you want to become. For example, Tom now sees himself standing erect, smiling, full of poise, content, relaxed, and in full control of his life. He sees himself encouraging, inspiring, and helping others to succeed. He takes a deep breath and enjoys the taste of victory.
3. Bring your visualization to life. To make your visualization as powerful as possible incorporate as many senses as possible. For example, as Tom imagines himself getting along with his coworkers at the office, he recalls to the best of his a