Questions are good for us to have right now—but whether they are fueled by curiosity, or by anxiety and depression, makes all the difference for our health and well-being.
So many questions.
Ask me how I feel inside right now, and I will answer that I am filled with questions, waiting for their answers. They range from critical to superficial, but they all feel valid in the moment I think them.
- Will my youngest daughter get her prom?
- Will she get her graduation ceremony?
- What if my husband loses his job?
- Will we have to cancel our late summer trip to Costa Rica?
- Have I missed my chance to promote my just-published new book?
- What happens in an emergency, not COVID-19 related?
- What if schools and universities can’t start up again in the fall?
- What if they do reopen, and it triggers a new wave of illness?
- What happens to those in domestic disputes? Child custody battles?
- Is this a headache or more than a headache?
- What about all this “lost time”?
- What happens if I need a root canal?
And on and on it goes.
Some of these questions have desperation behind them. Some are born of fear. Still others with sadness, anxiety, and even paralysis.
But any one of them, from mild to severe, could be the one to trigger my old companion Depression back to life—especially if I’m asking them from a place of anxiety or panic.
As someone who has been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression in my lifetime, I am fully aware that they can always return, given the right set of circumstances.
I would say that we’ve got quite the right set of circumstances.
For me, anxiety is my lifelong companion. Different than fear, which comes and goes, anxiety comes to stay.
I see anxiety as a response to feeling completely out of control—not only with our outer circumstances, but with our inner response as well.
Temporarily or, for some people more chronically, our body gets stuck in “fight-flight mode”—something that was built in us for short bursts of life-saving action.
To the body, anxiety feels like constantly being chased by a lion. There is little rest or respite. Comfort feels and sounds hollow.
Depression, for me, is a well-meaning but misguiding friend. He doesn’t want me to worry or ask What if?
He sees how all of these questions can take me to very dark places in my mind, and subsequently, in my body.
Depression offers me solace in the form of his “Cloak of Empty Calories” — which, just as it sounds, is a seemingly protective covering, but with traps all of its own. This Cloak offers all kinds of relief in the form of too much television, social media, unhealthy foods, alcohol, online shopping, or even rest.
Basically, Depression wants to rid me of anxiety by covering it up under a big huge black cloud of “I don’t care anymore.”
A CONVERSATION WITH DEPRESSION
Depression is wrong about me feeling better if I take up its Cloak of Empty Calories, but it doesn’t mean the offer doesn’t tempt these days. To take “shelter-in-place” so literally that I actually freeze in place. To shut down my heart, my passions, my hopes. Close myself off to the pain of our shared world.
Yet, what I know after years studying my own depression, is that when Depression suggests I pull away from the world in self-protection, what he’s really suggesting is that I’m not strong enough to stay engaged.
He’s suggesting that I’m not empathetic enough to listen to people’s stories, often filled with pain, loss, and fear.
Depression doesn’t believe I’m courageous enough to face whatever comes.
Depression is wrong about this, for he doesn’t understand the true nature of courage.
Depression wisely understands that we can’t control the outer world, so seeks to control the inner world by dialing everything down, and numbing everything out. “Stop seeking, stop questioning, stop worrying” is Depression’s remedy for “What if.”
“Not now,” Depression says, “don’t think about that now.”
“But what if—” I try to ask.
“No, don’t ask that question,” he interrupts. “Just numb out, veg out, pull away. It’ll make feel better to not think those thoughts.”
“But I just want to think about what if—” I try again.
“No, no questions. Squash them down, they are dangerous and scary and why ask questions if you can’t find the answers?”
THE VALUE OF ASKING QUESTIONS FOR BODY, MIND & SOUL
Depression is correct that many of my questions are not ones I can get answers to right now. So, why ask questions if we can’t find the answers?
Because asking questions that have no answer unleashes our imagination, and imagination good for our mind.
Because asking questions takes us out of our 2-planed, linear reality into a multi-planed, multi-directional creative possibility, and that is good for our soul.
Ultimately, asking questions awakens our curiosity and wonder, and that moves us out of fight-flight mode (sympathetic nervous system) into rest-digest mode (parasympathetic nervous system) which is good for our body.
Curiosity, I have learned, is the best antidote for my depression and anxiety.
HOW LIFE STEALS OUR CURIOSITY
It has been true for me since I was a child, that time of life when every flower, birth, death, stranger, and conversation drew me in to learn more: I love asking questions, pondering, wondering, imagining, philosophizing.
By adolescence though, like many of us, I had turned away from my curious self, and instead began to trust in authority, straight paths, and final answers.
Somehow along the way, probably a little bit at a time so I wouldn’t notice, life stole my curiosity from me, and tried to replace it with stock answers and acquiescence.
It was when I entered my 30s that anxiety and depression filled the space left behind by my curiosity.
These visitors, as challenging of guests as they could be, ensured that I sought help.
It was then that I began to see how closely my depressive, withdrawn episodes in my life, as well as my most anxious and faithless times, followed whenever I pushed aside my curiosity for obedience. When I set aside my wondering for right answers. When I stopped listening to my own personal authority and trusted instead in outer authorities to give me what I longed for.
Similarly, I saw how in times of great creativity and courage my endless curiosity was leading the way.
If there is one thing I have learned as I’ve made my way out of depression and anxiety, it is this: Asking questions isn’t the path to depression. It’s the path out of depression.
But, it does depend on how we ask the questions.
CULTIVATING MINDFULNESS & AWARENESS
An unmonitored mind can be a dangerous thing.
When our mind has us imagining the worst, the impact of those thoughts are felt in real time in the body.
Those frightening thoughts raise our blood pressure, elevate our heart rate, and put the body in “fight or flight mode,” ready to defend against an attacker. This sympathetic state of the nervous system minimizes all normal, daily rejuvenative and eliminative functions of the body, leaving us with a rising build up of toxins.
And the most dangerous thing of all?
Periods of anxiety lower our immune function, the one thing we need working at its optimum right now.
Mindfulness and awareness practices are key.
There is a stark difference—in our bodies, to our bodies—between asking ourselves, “Oh my god, what if I have to have a root canal?” and “I wonder what steps I would have to take if I needed a root canal right now?”
There is a difference between wondering, “What about all this lost time?” and “What can I make of this extra free time?”
The energy behind “What if schools and universities never go back to normal?” is quite different than, “I wonder how this period of time will shape our educational system for the next generations?”
In the former examples, there is a clenching up, a fear of change, and a lack of trust in ourselves and the world.
In the latter examples, there is an openness to possibility and change, and a long-range perspective about and trust in the capacity of human beings.
In order to build the needed strength and stamina to come out of this COVID-19 pandemic stronger and healthier, we must manage our anxiety and/or depression by taking care of and for our thoughts. More than ever before.
MONITOR & CHANGING THOUGHTS
In a time like we’re living through, when not only our own life is slowed down but society itself is slowed down, it would be nearly impossible to stop the thoughts.
This is not what I’m advising.
I’m advising we practice monitoring and changing our thoughts, so that rather than coming up from clinging fear and anxiety, thoughts arise from a lighter, more open curiosity.
By monitor, I mean to watch more closely, and rein in negative and anxiety-provoking thoughts.
By change I mean, change the energy that fuels them.
Perhaps surprisingly, curiosity and anxiety have something very important in common: They both rely on a highly active imagination.
But, if you can imagine the worst case scenarios, you also have the capacity to imagine how we might be stronger when this is over.
If you can picture scenes of a society that never goes back to normal, then you can also picture what and how it might rebuild itself stronger than ever.
If you can visualize, feel, and experience suffering even before it has visited you, you can visualize hope, feel, and experience hope even before it appears.
Consider this quote:
The same mind that creates anxious thoughts and persistent “what ifs” is the same mind that can create possibility and hope.
If an anxious mind can create nightmarish scenarios, it can also plan out the escape route.
It’s all about reining in the mind.
Ensuring that our minds work for us and not against us.
Taking care that the energy that fuels our mind is that of curiosity.
Because while anxiety is damaging to our health, curiosity can make us even healthier and more robust.
CURIOSITY AND THE SOUL
Remember, when we were children, we believed in magic. We held out hope for a better world. We asked “what if” a thousand times a day. This was all thanks to curiosity.
Curiosity holds within it a knowing that while the door to “normal” may indeed be locked, a window to “possibility” remains open.
Curiosity carries a childlike spirit and a willingness to see possibility.
And a child, far more than an adult, is in connection with its soul.
When I am connected to my childlike curiosity, I am nearer to my soul than I am when I try to control, plan, decide, or know—actions that derive from ego.
So by embodying my curiosity, I am that much closer to embodying my soul. From that space of soul embodiment, I have access to the soul’s wisdom, to the soul’s stamina and perseverance, to the soul’s strength.
My soul understands, and reminds me, that I have all the tools I need to manage through this time period.
My soul understands, and reminds me, that the kinds of remedies depression suggests are merely band-aids, and that the relief they provide isn’t real.
My soul knows that staying close to curiosity, especially in times of strife, struggle, and uncertainty is healthiest and life-supporting.
A NEW APPROACH
Here are just a few of the curious (rather than anxious) “what ifs” I’ve got my mind chewing on. Note how the energy differs from the ones at the opening:
- What might education look like when this comes to an end (and all things surely do)?
- What might we have learned about free market capitalism?
- What might we have understood about if we have what it takes to dial back carbon emissions?
- What if the concept of UBI (universal basic income) actually gains traction?
- What if we begin to imagine untying health insurance to employment, to ensure that everyone has what they need?
- What if, what if, what if.
There is much about life that is out of control.
There is much uncertainty right now.
But both of these things have always been true; now, though, any veil of separation or denial is gone.
The best way to stay healthy during this time is to keep asking questions. Stay curious. Stay close to your soul. And by doing so, take good care of your emotions—especially anxiety and depression.
They need you to be whole, connected, and in your full power.
The world needs you there, too.