Thriving with Anxiety and Depression
Thriving with Anxiety and Depression
We invite you to watch the accompanying ADAA July 2021 On-Demand Webinar: Thriving with Anxiety and Depression.
When it comes to mental health, the field of psychology has historically focused on what’s wrong – on the cause and treatment of deficits, disorders, and dysfunctions with the goal of alleviating symptoms and returning people to baseline or ‘normal’ levels of functioning. We’ve come a long way, especially when it comes to anxiety and depressive disorders. With treatment evidence-based therapies (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT) and medications, a lot of people are suffering less than they used to.
That’s all well and good, but I’d argue that it’s not enough.
The absence of illness is not the same as health, and the reduction of anxiety and depression is not the same as wellbeing. It’s not enough to just lessen symptoms, particularly when we consider that these are often chronic neurobiological conditions that may never fully go away. We need to go beyond symptom reduction and return to baseline functioning as our primary goals. Instead, we need to reach higher. We need to actively focus on helping individuals live good lives, even with the presence of anxiety or depression.
Introducing Positive Psychology
In contrast to more traditional psychological approaches, positive psych concerns itself with the good stuff in life. It strives to understand what makes for a good life and how we can not only maintain average or ‘normal’ functioning but how we can actually surpass it. Positive psychology focuses on building strengths and on maximizing wellbeing. In a word, it’s all about thriving.
Thriving means ‘to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way; to flourish.’ When it comes to human beings, that means being a vibrant version of ourselves and living a satisfying, meaningful life. It’s the embodiment of wellbeing, of optimal functioning.
Just like a plant in fertile soil with plenty of sunshine and water, we thrive under the right conditions. So what are those conditions that lead to thriving?
The PERMA Factors
The current leading theory, championed by the father of positive psychology himself, Dr. Martin Seligman, holds that there are five distinct factors, called the PERMA factors, that contribute most to human thriving and wellbeing.
P = Positive emotions.
Positive emotions such as happiness, joy, pride, and peacefulness are an important aspect of wellbeing. It’s impossible to only experience pleasant emotions – a wide range of pleasant and unpleasant feelings is normal and healthy in life – but knowing how to increase positive emotions, about the past, present, and future, can contribute to your wellbeing. Positive feelings alone, though, are not enough to thrive.
E = Engagement.
Engagement means spending time in activities in which you are completely immersed, often referred to as a state of flow. When we’re in a state of flow, we tend to lose track of time and self-consciousness disappears. We’re ‘in the zone.’ Our attention is completely engrossed, and we’re right on the edge of our skill level. That latter point is important. We can lose track of time while mindlessly scrolling on social media, but that’s not a state of flow. That’s passive consumption. Flow and engagement require effort on our part. It’s that sweet spot between challenge and ability where we become completely absorbed.
R = Relationships.
Forming and maintaining healthy supportive relationships is one of the most critical factors for wellbeing and life satisfaction. We need connections with others in order to be healthy and happy! Unfortunately, anxiety and depression can negatively impact relationships. Avoidance or withdrawal can keep us from connecting with others. Worry or low self-esteem can prevent us from being open and vulnerable or setting effective boundaries. Taking steps to establish new relationships or strengthen existing ones is important as is finding a sense of community and belonginess.
M = Meaning and purpose.
Being a part of something bigger than yourself is important for wellbeing. It can be what makes life worth living. What gives your life meaning may be different than what gives mine, but finding that sense of purpose is key. This can be an especially important lifeline when it comes to thriving with anxiety and depression. Being willing to contribute to something outside of yourself can help you make sense of and weather your own suffering, and it can help you get beyond the internal struggle you’re experiencing by focusing on something outside of yourself.
A = Achievement.
Setting and accomplishing goals, from tiny daily things to giant undertakings, gives us a sense of accomplishment or mastery that contributes to our wellbeing in its own right. Think about times when you’ve experienced a sense of accomplishment. The task or activity itself may not have been enjoyable, but the completion of it, reaching the goal, feels good.
Actively working to increase your PERMA factors can help boost your wellbeing. Moreover, pursuing your PERMA factors may also help reduce the problematic effects of depression and anxiety. That said, the skills and factors that reduce anxiety and depression are not the necessarily the same ones that bring about happiness, virtue, strength, and wellbeing. Like two sides of the same coin, I believe that combining more traditional evidence-based psychological interventions (like CBT and ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy) with positive psychology interventions designed to build more of the good stuff may just be the path toward thriving with anxiety and depression.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to thrive with anxiety and depression, how to boost your PERMA factors, and specific strategies from the field of positive psychology, check out the ADAA public education webinar, visit www.peakmindpsychology.com/adaa, and listen to the Building Psychological Strength podcast.