Mental health: why we cancel things when we are anxious or depressed

For the anxious, continuous activity can bring courage. Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

For those who are anxious or depressed, a common pattern of behaviour is the plan-cancel cycle, where activities get booked, only to be cancelled closer to the time.

Why does this happen? Is it healthy? What can be done to amend this pattern, if a person isn’t enjoying all the cancelling.

WHY DO WE CANCEL ACTIVITIES

Firstly, let’s look at the why.

If we are anxious, we will tend to cancel activities because of felt pressure, and a desire to escape that pressure. Depression is slightly different – we tend to cancel because of a lack of motivation to see through our intentions. You could say that with anxiety, everything matters too much; with depression, everything matters too little.

This leads both anxious and depressed people to put themselves in danger of under-activity.

IS CANCELLING HEALTHY?

Secondly, is it healthy to cancel?

We all need enough activity to pull us out of ourselves, but enough rest to recover. A cancellation is healthy if it increases our chance of recovery. So if we genuinely need the rest, then yes, cancelling is good.

But think of a healthy, active life as a kind of bicycle wheel, running on its own momentum. For the anxious person it’s a cycle of courage; for the depressed person, a cycle of motivation.

Over-cancelling risks lowering levels of courage and motivation. The anxious person runs the risk of not getting enough exposure to enhance courage. And the depressed person risks not getting enough motivation.

For mental health, we should stray on the side of more activity rather than less. This has beneficial side-effects on our physical health too, leading us to move around more, and expose our attentional systems to more stimulation.

CHANGING THE PATTERN

Finally, what can be done to change this pattern? What can an over-canceller do to reverse the process?

  1. Create commitment pressure. We tend to keep appointments where someone else is depending on us. We can set up meetings with others at agreed times, to learn, exercise, or socialise.
  2. Reinforce with organisation. Diarising activities well ahead can help our brains to engage with them constructively, as we have good warning, and there is less change of clashes.
  3. Reinforce with routine. Our automatic mind and body can engage with routine without thinking. If we build an active routine, we will follow it without needing to push too hard.
  4. Make activities authentically interesting. There is no point in leading a life that we find so boring that it’s not worth living. We should have at least some activities that we find it easy to look forward to.

SUMMARY

  • A sign of mental illness is the tendency to cancel activities.
  • With anxiety, it’s pressure-avoidance. With depression, it’s lack of motivation.
  • If we genuinely need the rest, then of course we should cancel.
  • But an active life is like a bicycle – it needs momentum to continue.
  • Activity brings courage to the anxious. It also brings motivation to the depressed. As a side-effect, it also brings physical health and attentional stimulation.
  • If we want to cancel less, we can use social agreement, diarising and routine to commit to appointments with others. We can also make sure that at least some of what we do is interesting to us on a personal level.