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Anxiety and Depression – Getting Stuck in our Thoughts

Anxiety and Depression – Getting Stuck in our Thoughts

The words “anxiety” and “depression” can be quite scary, and it can be difficult to ask for help because of something going on in your mind. As a Mental Health Counsellor, I invite my clients to think about their depression and anxiety experiences not as labels of illness, but rather as something that they can get stuck in – and get out of, as well.

This can be an over-simplification of complex issues, but I think it is still a helpful way to begin to make some sense of the experience.

While the symptoms and experiences of anxiety and depression are, in fact, quite different, both often involve being stuck in our thoughts. With depression one is likely stuck in thoughts about the past, and with anxiety, it is thoughts about the future.

These unhelpful thoughts about the past and future infect the present moment and keep us stuck.

Stuck in the Past and the Future

When someone experiences depression, they often describe their symptoms as:

  • feeling sad or angry most of the time,
  • not enjoying life, and
  • not wanting to do much of anything, believing things have never worked out and they won’t ever get better.

This person could be stuck remembering something in their past. These remembrances of hurts, traumas and painful moments become so overwhelming that they infect the present moment with imaginings of a never-changing future as bad as the past.

When someone experiences anxiety they often describe their symptoms as:

  • feeling afraid and nervous,
  • worried about many things in life, and
  • finding it hard to do anything out of their comfort zone because they imagine bad results will come.

This person is likely stuck imagining something terrible happening in the future. These projections of hurts, threats and disasters become so overwhelming that they also infect the present moment. 

A Moment of Anxiety

When we are caught up in a moment of anxiety, we have projected ourselves into a time in the future where we imagine a terrible outcome.

Here’s an example I am sure many of us can relate to.

A student begins the semester, looks at his syllabus and sees that there will be an exam
at the end of the course worth 60% of the final grade. At that moment, his thoughts jump to the end of the semester, and he imagines a very hard exam, in which he isn’t able to succeed, and then he imagines failing the course, then seeing his GPA dropping, his hopes of a good job and financial stability disappearing, and suddenly he is panicking.

As you read that long last sentence, how many of you now notice that you are holding your breath, tensing up, or your heart is racing?

Stop and take a deep breath because right now at this moment, where is this imaginary student in this scenario? He is at the beginning of the semester, and he hasn’t started studying what he will be tested on. His mind took him to the end of the semester and then beyond to a frightening future.

Where are you right now? You are probably sitting at your computer or on your phone. As you read this, you are probably safe, but your body may have started reacting like you were going to be taking this exam and see your hopes of financial stability disappear.

Coming Back to the Present

By bringing your mind back to the present moment, you can notice where your thoughts have taken you.

Do you see yourself in a terrible imagined future based on events that have not even happened?

Are you finding yourself reliving a moment of hurt in the past that makes you feel hopeless today?

Right now, where are you? What do you physically see around you? What do you hear? What do you smell? Where is your body? Is something terrible happening right now?

We have all had the experience of getting stuck in one way or another. When we are stuck, we can’t get out of the position we are in.

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