The Common Colds of Mental Illness


Typically, when we are depressed, we struggle with interrupted sleep, appetite changes, poor motivation and tolerance, poor concentration and memory, and even sometimes suicidal thoughts.  In fact, research suggests that suicidal thoughts are quite common in depressive episodes, however suicidal intention (a plan of how, when and where) is cause for concern and often intervention. 

anxietySimilarly, when we are anxious, we tend to experience physiological changes such as heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, dry mouth, headaches, difficulty breathing (or hyperventilating) and even chest pain.  Quite often, people can experience both depression and anxiety at the same time.  Studies show that 70% of people with depression also have anxiety.   David Barlow, the director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University says that "Depression seems to be a shutdown, while anxiety is looking to the future, seeing dangerous things that might happen in the next hour, day or weeks. Depression adds an additional layer of  'I really don't think I'm going to be able to cope with this, maybe I'll just give up.' It's shutdown is marked by cognitive or behavioural slowing."

The good news is there are great psychological strategies to assist in the management of anxiety and depression.  These strategies vary depending on the needs of each individual, but often an understanding of the importance of our thoughts in creating how we feel, and how we behave is useful.  Once we have a good insight into the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, then strategies such as thought defusion become helpful. 

When we are 'fused' with our thoughts, we are ‘caught up in’ or preoccupied with them. Thought 'defusion' involves distancing from unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, memories and other cognitions.  For example, it may involve noticing a thought that we are having about a situation,  and finding a short sentence that encapsulates the essence of that thought – for example ‘there is no way I’ll get this work done on time’. Then we might say the sentence very slowly and (preferably) out loud, with at least a five second gap between each word, whilst breathing gently and keeping attention to the space between each word.  It's amazing how a technique like this can change how we relate to our thoughts, and assist us to prioritise what is important, and what is just 'conditioned' patterns of thinking.

There are many other strategies to assist in managing anxiety and depression which people find useful. Sometimes it is a matter of trying different approaches until you find which works best for you. Seeing a psychologist and discussing these strategies is a great place to start.  In addition to this, there are free Internet and phone application supports to help identify anxious and depressive moods, and to monitor them over time (eg.,  Information gathered on resources such as these can be very helpful in therapy, and provide excellent information for your psychologist to assist you to manage painful emotions such as depression and anxiety.