One of the things that clients I see are often most confused about when it comes to anxiety and depression is the relationship between their feelings and the root nature of the problem. All too often we label the feelings as the problem.
Consider it from this perspective; if you go to hospital with a broken leg, you wouldn’t say, “I have pain-in-my-leg disorder”. The pain signals that there is an underlying problem. Similarly, if you are out in the cold with no jumper, you wouldn’t say that you have “a coldness disorder”. Feeling pain and cold are signs that your basic needs for bodily integrity and warmth are not being met.
Negative feelings like depression and anxiety function the same way. They are, for the large majority, emotional signals that an individual’s psychological health is not ideal. A signal that their needs are not being met. Humans have relationship needs in the following areas:
- Peers / friendships
- Romantic partners
- Group / occupational / social identity
There is also the relationship they have with themselves and the extent to which they feel proud and accepting of themselves (or not). In other words, it is vital we feel known and valued by our family, our friends and our lovers. It is equally important to us to be known and valued in terms of how we contribute to society. It is also vital that we have compassion and respect for ourselves.
Depression can be our emotional system signaling that things are not working and that our need for good relationships are not being met. If you are low on relational value in the key areas of family, friends, lovers, group and self; feeling depressed in this context is the same as feeling pain from a broken leg and feeling cold from being outside in the cold with no coat.
Depression often serves not to help and enlist social support, but instead exacerbates further isolation of the individual. It creates a vicious spiral of withdrawal, doing less, feeling more isolated, turning against the self, and thus feeling more depressed. As such, depressive symptoms often do contribute to the problem, and people do suffer where extreme negative moods are definitely part of the problem.
It is important to understand that anxiety and depression are symptoms of psychosocial needs and threats. They should not be considered ‘wrong’ feelings that need to be eliminated or fixed. If we can start by acknowledging and accepting our feelings of depression and/or anxiety then we can work towards a better understanding of ourselves and our needs and how we might get these met.
By Gwen McKerrell