If you have to choose between depression and anxiety – choose anxiety! Here’s why:
One of my favorite books in my library is by Jungian analyst, James Hollis and entitled, “Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places”. In it the author addresses how to cope with the dismal feelings of guilt, grief, loss, betrayal, doubt, loneliness, depression, despair, obsessions, addictions, anger, fear, angst, and anxiety.
In the chapter where Hollis addresses the “swampland of depression” he says: “The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what happened to us in the past and who we are in the present. No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond that child’s control. One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.”
For those of us who have been deceived, duped, exploited, repressed in the past and then exiled from our loved ones when we choose to exit such controls, it is easy to feel depressed – depressed when we think of the years we have lost, the family we have lost, the skills we were discouraged from exploring, the potential we sacrificed. As we grieve our losses, we may understandably feel depressed for a time. Who would not feel depressed as they contemplate the task ahead – to begin from scratch to rebuild a thwarted life?
As we contemplate rebuilding a life after being discouraged from educating ourselves, discouraged from developing normal competencies (that were not useful to the goals of the high-control group), discouraged from developing a normal comfort level in the world – we may experience anxiety.
It is often found that, in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of the anxiety that accompanies ventures into the unknown, people can slip back into a state of depression. It seems that the human psyche sometimes prefers depression and the safety its paralysis provides, over the discomforting feelings of anxiety produced by taking on new tasks.
We need to understand that although we may intensely dislike the feeling of anxiety it, at the very least, signals that we are entertaining doing things that are new to us, doing things that take us out of our old comfort zone, undertaking tasks that require us to take risks and moving forward with rebuilding our life.
Depression on the other hand, while perhaps serving the purpose of squashing the anxiety of movement into the unknown – can dull us, paralyze us, and demoralize us. Depression can sometimes be an unconscious choice to feel “safe” in a shell of sorrow, rather than to experience the anxiety of risk-taking and growth.
James Hollis explains: “Thus we are forced into a difficult choice – anxiety or depression. If we move forward, as our soul insists, we may be flooded by anxiety. If we do not move forward, we will suffer the depression, the pressing down of the soul’s purpose. In such a difficult choice one must choose anxiety, for anxiety at least is a path of potential growth; depression is a stagnation and defeat of life.”
It is important for those of us suddenly finding ourselves without supports and woefully unprepared to function in a world we were led to believe was ‘evil’ and about to be destroyed, to realize that anxiety is to be expected when we lose our comfort zone, when we tackle something new. In fact, experiencing anxiety is a signal that you are working at learning new skills, entering new spheres of operation, and testing your determination to build a new life.
Soren Kierkegaard says, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If you want to explore and enjoy your newfound freedom you will, as a consequence, experience some anxiety.
Experiencing anxiety is NOT always a signal that you are in danger and should stop. Anxiety is NOT always your enemy. You WILL experience anxiety as you work to reclaim and rebuild your life. It must be expected, managed and even embraced.
As James Hollis says, we are confronted by a choice to move forward while experiencing some anxiety or to fall back into paralysis and depression. Depression, by stalling forward movement, may temporarily make anxiety abate and may even make you feel “safe” and less vulnerable – but at what cost?
Depression, when it strikes, does hold meaning, and there may be much we can learn from its presence. If, however, you think you may have unconsciously chosen to feel depressed rather than to experience the feeling of anxiety that comes with entering new territory, consider making a conscious choice to involve yourself in the project of rebuilding your life with its attendant anxiety. Choose the challenge. Allow the anxiety. Manage the anxiety. Take the required steps toward meeting your previously repressed potential.
Thirty years ago when I left a manipulative, repressive group, I felt depressed. During that period of depression I made little progress in moving forward and rebuilding my life. Blinded by the many losses and the dark hole of depression, I saw no way forward.
However, the depression did offer a time-out to grieve my losses and as I slowed down during that dismal state and thought about my life, I was able to develop an appreciation for what remained to me, for nature’s always reliable presence, and for the unconditional love always demonstrated by my husband and children. As the depression helped me make space for grieving, I eventually came to the realization that life now required me to embrace this new reality outside of the high-control group and to step up to envision a future different from the one I had expected.
However, as I contemplated moving forward with my life – I became anxious. At first I took the anxiety as an indicator that I was moving too fast or contemplating too much. Fortunately, something in me was able to challenge the accuracy of that assumption.
I began to re-envision and rebuild my life with small, manageable steps in areas that would cause me the least amount of anxiety. I began with the path of least resistance and sought out books that would encourage and support me – and began a course of private uplifting and educational reading/study at home.
With the new knowledge from my reading, and as my courage grew I decided to step out of my comfort zone and study more formally at university. It took a few months to push myself to take the risks required. I had to be willing to endure the anxious feelings these new behaviors and surroundings would produce. It would have been so much easier to continue to isolate and mourn my losses, but life was asking me to stretch and grow.
I was fortunate to have the time and resources to make the choice to go to university. However, it made me anxious to even think of all the pre-requisites I would have to fulfil to be admitted to any institute of higher learning. I had grown up in a cult that discouraged formal higher education. There was a lot of catching-up to do. Once admitted into the halls of higher learning, the anxiety did not abate. For a while, each new step brought more anxiety with it. I felt like an alien treading on unknown ground on a distant planet. I felt unprepared and out of sync. But, I discovered, the only way to reduce my unpreparedness was to persist learning new things and trying out new behaviors. That persistence also reduced my anxiety.
I had to take the risks and bear the anxiety movement forward produced, in order to build competencies that would allow me to fully participate in and enjoy this hard-won experience of freedom. Of course, I did not realize then that I was actually choosing anxiety over depression. I only discovered that when I read the Hollis book “Swamplands of the Soul” and made the connection.
It is my hope that with this article I have alerted you to this choice that may also present itself to you. I want to encourage you to not fear your own (very normal) anxiety as you contemplate reclaiming and rebuilding your life. Instead, recognize the anxiety when stepping into the unknown as a signal that you are trying new things that will help you recover your place in the world. The anxiety will diminish with time and persistence.
Your new, life-rebuilding projects may be very different from mine, but the inner experience will be similar. Humans are designed to experience anxiety when entering new situations so that they will stay alert, maintain focus and keep themselves safe. Eventually, as we embrace more and more new activities the anxiety will lessen, but anxiety will still be there as a signal when you are entering ‘new territory’ and need to keep your wits about you and/or seek support.
One caveat: As you work to create a new life, be alert to old patterns of excessively high standards and overly-high expectations. They can exacerbate anxiety and, if the high-expectations are not attained, throw you back into depression.
If you are newly out of a high-control group and about to rebuild your life, use the Hollis sentence quoted above to remind yourself of the choice in front of you: “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” If we only dwell on what happened to us and what we lost by being a member of a controlling, repressive group we will probably remain depressed. If instead, we start to work toward what we can now become, with what is now available to us, in spite of the accompanying anxiety, we will be rewarded with progress into a new, rewarding life.
(This piece was originally written for and posted on the Open Mind Foundations’ blog.)