t’s July, and I have a vegetable and herb garden that I built myself, so this is a pretty exciting time of year for me. I have been working on creating this particular garden since late February, starting with corrugated cardboard laid over the grassy lawn to force the grass to go dormant, followed by several weeks of scooping, moving, and shoveling a compost/topsoil combination over the cardboard and allowing the sun and rain to breakdown the cardboard and create a soil mix well-suited for the plants I intended to grow, obtaining and putting the plants in the ground, caring for them, and finally, now, seeing them begin to bear fruit. Is it weird that I kind of love these plants? They’re like little pets that don’t go anywhere and instead of me feeding them they feed me.
The whole concept of compost development is particularly exciting to me. Although my own compost bin is still in its adolescence and not great ready to graduate, move out, and get a full-time job, I love how the cycle of plant/fruit/food debris set aside to develop into nutrients that feed new plants and fruits shows me the details of God’s provisions for His people. It’s not perfect, but He set up a situation where our food nourishes us and the parts of our food that go unused nourish the ground, enabling it to provide us with more food.
There are a lot of wonderful, naturally repetitive cycles in the world that we benefit from. Unfortunately, the cycles related to anxiety and depression aren’t inherently beneficial, at least not in a way that we can recognize easily. I was diagnosed with depression when I was 19, and a doctor added an anxiety diagnosis a few years later. Even then I could see that the two were related and likely fed into each other, but now I recognize these two unfortunate chemical imbalances are more like two sides of the same coin.
To be clear, I’m speaking from my perspective alone, based on my experience as a depression/anxiety suffer for at least the last 23 years. Doctors and other sufferers may disagree with the way I look at it, but I’m confident that many people who suffer from anxiety also suffer from depression, whether or not they have both of these official DSM-V diagnoses or not. The point I’m trying to make in saying this is that anxiety feeds into depression, and depression feeds into anxiety, and so the two are bosom buddies of the worst kind.
If you’ve recognized anxiety symptoms in yourself or a loved one, or if you have a diagnosis already, it’s important to look for depression symptoms as well, and if you have depression symptoms, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your psychiatrist and/or therapist to see in what ways they’re connected. If you take medication for anxiety and think that depression may be a problem for you as well, this should be a part of your conversation with your prescribing doctor to ensure that your treatment plan addresses both diagnoses and helps you to cope with the anxiety-depression roller coaster.
I’m not a doctor. I can only offer my experience as a survivor of chronic depression and anxiety, and I do so because it’s been my experience that hearing the experiences of someone with long-term, frontline experience in this battle can help some people recognize that they are neither alone nor defenseless against the symptoms and struggles surrounding mental health.
Recognizing the Anxiety-Depression Cycle
One way to look at the relationship between anxiety and depression is to think of it as a progression of emotional reactivity. For example, let’s say that I’ve come to the realization that a long-term friendship is becoming too difficult to maintain since she moved to another part of the country. You realize that, since your connection was formed and matured through regular lunch dates and weekend trips, two things that can’t happen regularly now, you don’t feel close to her without those shared moments, and phone calls, texts, and Facebook chats just aren’t the same. Sure, you could avoid the issue by telling her you’re busy, your internet connection is slow, or your kids are fighting too much, but eventually she’ll realize you’re avoiding her, even in the context of online communication.
Even in this fictitious scenario, you can imagine that anxiety is a factor. You care about her, and you care about how she feels about you. You care about her feelings, and you don’t want her to feel rejected. You want her to know that you still care about her, but that the distance-communication thing is getting in the way of your own needs and priorities. It’s uncomfortable to say the least, but telling her that you need to prioritize your time and energy differently is the right thing to do.
Right here is the first stop on the anxiety bus. You know that you can’t keep up a tight relationship with her anymore, and you know that she’ll probably be hurt when you tell her that. You also know her, and maybe that means she’s going to try to bargain with you about your time, talk you out of it, or get depressed or angry. You care about her, and don’t want her to feel that way. But you don’t want to feel the way you do right now, either. And the first person whose mental health you’re responsible for is you.
It can’t keep going like it is, so you have to tell her what she won’t want to hear. So, to make it easier for her, you think through when and how you want to tell her. You make a few notes about how you should say it, when, and what words you can use to soften the blow. You make sure that you tell her as clearly as you can that you’re not making this decision based on something she’s said or done, other than having moved away. You’ll tell her that it’s hard for you to do this, and you will dearly miss her. But that, for now anyway, you need to focus on your life in your town. You pray over it, you ask other friends and family to pray for you in preparation. It’s a heavy burden in your heart, but you need to move through it before you can set it down.
All of the worry, preparation, and prayer you’ve put into this reveals that you’re understandably anxious about it. That’s OK. If you are so anxious about it that you are distracted, have trouble sleeping or eating, or can’t think about anything else, you are experiencing anxiety.
Finally one evening you say a prayer, call your friend at a predetermined time, and tell her your truth. Despite all your prayer and preparation and all your best efforts to make your “it’s not you, it’s me” message very clear, she’s hurt. She cries, she asks you if you’re mad at her, if you don’t like her anymore, if she did something wrong. She accuses you of hiding something, of having lied about enjoying your friendship. She asks you over and over again why you’re mad at her, and no matter how many times you tell her that you aren’t, she keeps saying that you are. Her words hurt you after you tried so hard to do this with love. You find yourself getting angry at her for being angry. You want to yell too and tell her that she’s selfish for thinking that you would want to hurt her. Finally, fuming, you tell her that you can’t continue the conversation any longer. You hang up.
Ouch. Your heart and your mind are wounded by this. You did everything you could to keep it loving and kind, and it backfired completely. You’re sad that you hurt your friend, you’re angry that she refused to receive you honestly and accused you of things. And you stay angry, feeling your blood boil just a little whenever you relive those 10 minutes in your thoughts.
But time passes, and two or three weeks later you’re less angry. The sting is still there, but the scar is forming over it. Until you stumble upon the Facebook post she left for you on your birthday four years ago, and all those feelings come back, but instead of coming back like an eruption of anger, they come back as a flood of tears.
All of this is 100% natural and normal, something anyone in a similar situation will experience. If the anger and hurt both decrease naturally with time, and eventually your old friendship lives in your mind as a bittersweet memory, you have gone through a period of anxiety and depression, but you have healed from this particular chunk of human experience.
But if the memory of the friend, the friendship, and the way it ended still quickly produces crocodile tears and two weeks-worth of regret and believing you’re a terrible human being three or four years later, you are experiencing depression in a way that shouldn’t be ignored.
Whether your concern is anxiety, depression, or both, time and intensity can help you determine if or when to get help from a doctor or therapist. But there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule that I can give you to determine whether or not you should consider professional help. It all depends on you, and on how the feelings (and sometimes the events that occurred around the time you developed them) are affecting the things you do and the way you feel each day. There’s no blood test for anxiety or depression; you can’t pee in a cup and wait for the doctor to tell you whether or not to see a therapist. The process isn’t black and white, but that’s a good thing. You are in the driver’s seat, and you get to make the decisions when it comes to your mental health.
If you’re running out of ideas to help yourself “feel better” or “get over it;” if it’s been a long time and you still think about that thing that happened multiple times a day, err on the side of caution. Go see your pastor or priest, a therapist, a doctor, or a counselor. Doing so will never be a mistake.