This is a self-care post for people dealing with depression or anxiety. As I’ve mentioned before, I dealt with life-threatening depression several years ago. I learned a lot and have been lucky enough to have happiness as a default setting for a long time now.
With mental health matters, the same things don’t work for everybody! However, maybe something that’s worked for me will work for someone else, too.
One sure way to fall into or prolong depression is by obsessing about a fear or a negative situation. Often, we let our minds become completely fixated, and we believe this is both natural and inevitable — even though some of us are capable of avoiding it. Whether we’re dealing with an illness or the threat of one, an impending layoff at work, a breakup, or any other kind of heartbreak or dread, we tell ourselves that there’s no point in denying our feelings.
In my experience, I can acknowledge negative feelings without cuddling up to them, making them a cup of tea, and asking them to take up permanent residence. This may not be true for everyone, but I’ve learned that I can control what I think about, and the more practice I have at controlling it, the better at it I get.
Studies show that when you think about something painful again and again, it becomes one of your most easily accessible thoughts or memories. It’s like your mind is wearing a familiar path. (Fortunately, if you obsess about positive things, as I make a point of doing, this thinking begins more and more to rise to the top.)
On a practical level, obsessing about situations beyond our control, or fears that may or may not come to pass, serves no good purpose. It’s just extra, pointless suffering for us. Even if we need to devise a plan (such as what we will do if we lose our job or when the divorce is final), obsessive negative thoughts will block insightful and creative solutions to the problem. It would be better if we could come at it with a clear head.
A lot of writers read this blog, so I bet you know what I’m talking about. Have you ever been stuck staring at a Word doc or a blank page for a really long time? And then you get up and do the dishes or take a shower, and suddenly the solution appears? Sometimes the brain needs a break to do its best work.
Here are some things that have helped me stop obsessing. Maybe one or more of them will work for you!
1. Avoid the external triggers.
If there’s an impending layoff, politely walk away from freaked-out conversations between coworkers. If a tragedy in the news is upsetting you, make a donation to a cause that can help, if you’re able to do it and it’s an option. Then turn off the television, take a social media break, and disable the news alerts on your computer. If you’re worried about a health prognosis, don’t leave the medical literature the hospital gave you in plain sight. Painful breakup? Feel free to clear your social media accounts of photographs of the person, if that will help you, and unfollow or hide mutual friends who chat a lot with your ex (heck, unfriend them if you want to.)
2. Schedule some overrides.
If you just tell yourself, “Don’t think about it, don’t think about it,” well, you’re going to think about it. But your brain is, happily, pretty bad at thinking about two things at the same time. Here are some great things to schedule for overriding obsessive thoughts:
Take a long walk while listening to an entertaining audiobook. (Sometimes, fiction is survival. That’s why writing is so important. If you write escapist genre fiction? You’re probably saving lives.)
Watch a funny movie. Or episodes of a funny TV show. Feel-good, sentimental stuff with happy endings works, too. In all seriousness, this can be incredibly helpful.
Create. Tell yourself you’re not allowed to obsess until you produce a finished drawing, a row of pieced quilt squares, a poem, or five fresh pages of your story.
Alcohol does not work as an override. It’s the opposite of an override. Trust me on this. I’m pretty sure drugs don’t work, either.
3. Do something nice for somebody else.
Give your friend a card with a hand-written note telling her why you like and admire her. Bring your neighbors a bunch of donuts or bagels for no reason. Bake cookies and take them to the homeless shelter (and also, have a cookie.) Negative obsession and positive action are nearly incompatible.
If you have other ways to avoid obsessing about negative things, please share them! I bet we all can use them. Thanks for reading, and take good care of yourself.