Our anxious mind is focused on results. It thinks it’s trying to help. ‘I’m trying to make life easier,’ the anxious mind says. ‘But, to make things easier, there is this list of things to be done… unless the things are done, I can have no peace.’ So the mind drives us to action after action, convinced that all this busy-ness is necessary in order to ‘correct’ life. We are like travellers in a hilly landscape, always convinced that the next hill is the one which, once climbed, will solve everything. But, once the next hill is climbed, we focus on another one. The job is never done.
A LITTLE CONCERN IS POSITIVE
In a sense, this tendency to push ourselves is what drives great achievements. Many of life’s creators and shapers – the architects, the politicians, the musicians, the writers – would not continue to have such an effect, if they did not sometimes lie awake at night, worried about their latest venture. But, equally, there comes a point when life gets too heavy, when the burden of the required action outweighs the balanced health of the individual.
WHEN ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION ARISE
This is often when a counsellor or therapist gets involved – when a person realises that, despite their attempts to manage life, and ‘get everything done’, they are slipping behind in some fundamental ways. If hope remains in the mind and body, then a client may often report with anxiety – increased nervous energy, and a feeling of pressure, of ‘not enough time’. If exhaustion and despair are taking over, then the client may show the mind and behaviours of depression – a reduced energy, and an overwhelming feeling of ‘what’s the point?’.
TAKING LIFE MORE LIGHTLY
In both cases – anxiety and depression – taking life more lightly can be one of the key symptoms of improvement in mental health. When we are anxious, a lighter approach can bring us back from panic, and into a more relaxed performance mode. Our ‘fight or flight’ chemicals get a chance to flow out of our system, and to make way for more peaceful hormonal responses. When we are depressed, finding a lighter approach, with some humour, can be a sign that our sense of failure and disengagement is diminishing. After depression, slowly but surely, we can start to feel again.
How do we begin to take life more lightly? How can we transform our mind into a less pressurised, less despairing place to think and feel?
VARIETY (ESCAPING SAMENESS)
Life gets very samey when we are anxious and/or depressed. We play the same round of thoughts in our heads like church bells. On and on we go. This has several effects. Firstly, the thought patterns become a habit, a groove we find it hard to escape from. And, secondly, we literally wear ourselves out on the same thoughts, like a machine wearing itself out on one particular movement.
To counteract this, we need to build into our lives a sense of variety, by gently trying out new people, thoughts and environments. Our obsession with achievement can blunt our curiosity. We need a bit of chaos to break up our over-orderliness.
AGENCY (ESCAPING SELF-POLICING)
Agency is a sense that we can decide what to do next. When anxious or depressed, we control our own behaviour like self-restricting police officers. In a way, we are destroying our own freedom through our personal obsessions with ‘correct’ living. There is nothing wrong with trying to live well. But the kind of ‘correct’ living that anxiety promotes is born of fear – and fear is not a very good health-promoter.
We need to find some escape from our inner self-inhibiting lawmaker. Falling asleep becomes easier, because we are more relaxed and less challenged. Making friends also becomes easier, because we are less obsessed with everything going right. When we are more relaxed, taking life lightly, our social lives tend to go better.
SPACE (ESCAPING THE NARROW PERSPECTIVE)
Finally, space is ultra-important when we are suffering from anxiety. Life feels like it is pressing against our nose. We can’t breathe or think properly. Perspective disappears. Although we also need reassurance, that reassurance has to come with a sense that we are allowed to move freely, and that the world is a spacious place in which to wander. ‘If you love somebody, set them free.’ So if you love yourself, do the same for yourself.
Make gaps in the day for walking, or relaxing, or socialising. Make gaps in life so that things can just ‘come up’. Make spaces in life so that you can listen to, and be there for, friends when they need you. A sense of spaciousness is very subtle, as it is more about the things we do not do, than the things we do.
How is life? Is there too much sameness? Too much self-policing? Too narrow a perspective? How can we build more variety, agency and space into it?