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A Functional Perspective on Anxiety and Depression, Part I Anxiety

A Functional Perspective on Anxiety and Depression, Part I Anxiety

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In keeping with national statistics, anxiety and depression continue to be among the most common mental health concerns clients share with me in my office. Although some clients confuse anxiety and/or depression with their associated emotions (anxiety with fear/panic, depression with sadness/hopelessness) or with a temporary stressor, it’s clear that many of them are suffering with the distressing and debilitating clusters of symptoms that warrant the diagnosis. As if this were not troubling enough, many of my clients also carry with them the shame associated with the felt sense and/or the inference from others that there is something wrong or broken with them that renders them unable to manage their emotional experience.

In my experience, anxiety and depression are hard enough to deal with on their own, without the added shame creating needless obstacles to the healing process. When I see this happening for my clients and as an effort to alleviate their shame, I direct my focus first to helping clients adopt what I believe is a healthier and more hopeful concept of what they are experiencing. I do this by asking them to consider anxiety and depression as less of distressing mood states and more as internal systems/mechanisms responsible for specific tasks within the organism that is their human body. Additionally, I ask them to consider the possibility that these systems/mechanisms are functioning properly.

I imagine that the concept I am presenting here may seem dismissive of a client’s distress, given that the client is suffering and felt compelled to seek professional help and here is their chosen professional telling them that there might not be anything wrong. I assure you that this is not the intention or the regular outcome of this approach. I will also say that I make it a standard practice to request that clients be examined by a trusted physician prior to starting therapy or shortly thereafter to ensure that their symptoms are not related to a medical condition or the effects of medications or substances that they may be using. Barring any of these issues, I then ask them to return to the assumption that they are not broken. What then may be some other explanations for the distress clients are experiencing? 

Let’s first take a look at what I mean by anxiety and depression being internal systems/mechanisms functioning within the human body. From a structural perspective, anxiety can be seen as the threat detector of the body, a sort of early warning system that gives us the opportunity to investigate, evaluate, and plan our response to potential stressors. I like to imagine a life guard tower that allows a part of our brain to look out over the waves and see what conditions may be coming. From this same structural perspective, depression represents the emergency power off switch, a safety mechanism of sorts that forces a reboot or recovery period when our circuits are overloaded. I compare the depression system to the surge protector that (hopefully) all of us have our computers plugged into.

If a client can adopt this perspective, even temporarily, I then ask them to consider that their distress may be related to a setting within the system being tuned more sensitively than is needed, or a more likely explanation that they are somehow assigning tasks to the system that it is not designed to perform. For help in understanding what I mean by this, I use the example of a smoke detector, an early warning and fire prevention system that most of us are familiar with. 

A smoke detector is designed to sound an alarm any time its ionic or photoelectric field is interrupted by gases and particles indicative of a fire. What a smoke detector is not designed to do is interpret or evaluate the field interruption. If we are entrusting the latter task to the smoke detector, every alarm will equal an emergency.

It’s easy to see the mistake here, a potential fire and a verified fire are very different conditions. Determining the difference is the responsibility of a complementary system. I am by no means advocating for ignoring the smoke detector’s alarm, on the contrary, it is absolutely imperative that we attend to the alarm each and every time it goes off, because we could be facing a true emergency. However, our investigation of the alarm sounding can be tempered with the possibility that we could just as easily and may be more likely to find that someone is in the kitchen making toast and that they like theirs well done, which although not my personal taste does not constitute an emergency. 

What would it be like then to apply this analogy to our human early warning system, our anxiety? Imagine the relief clients may experience in knowing that the work they will be doing may only be in fine tuning their brains to better respond to the conditions of their lives rather than in spending their precious energy trying to fix what is not broken.

Stay tuned for a structural take on depression to follow in the coming weeks.