Differentiating: Snake or Stick?

For those of us who struggle with Anxiety or Depression (note, capital "A" Anxiety and capital "D" Depression), it's important to practice the process of differentiating. In the context of this post, I'm using the words "differentiate/ing/ion" to mean delineating between things (not to be confused with the process of differentiation as it applies to holding healthy boundaries in relationships).

It's important that we differentiate, because Depression loves to corral normal emotional responses for its purposes, as does Anxiety. Differentiating allows us to determine what is our Depression/Anxiety, and what is a normal response to an actual stimulus.

For example, experiences like grief, sadness, hurt, and anger often trigger our experience of Depression and are used for the purposes of creating a false sense of presence and power for the Depression itself. It's a normal process to grieve after the loss of a loved one. If someone cuts you off in traffic, a normal response would be to feel angry. A missed opportunity (stimulus) leads to feeling let down (normative response). An upcoming test causes stress and anxiety (small "a"). These things are normal. It's important not to be tricked into thinking that these responses are your Anxiety and/or Depression taking hold. That's exactly what the diseases want; they aim to narrow your focus and trick you into thinking they are everywhere! 

So, one of the easiest ways to differentiate in a situation is to follow these steps (a mindfulness practice in-and-of itself):

1) Identify the problematic feeling you're having 

2) Determine if there is a stimulus that can be linked to this feeling

3) Check the facts with yourself and/or others to validate that this feeling is a natural response to the identified stimulus

If you can do this, you're most likely experiencing a normative response to an unfortunate life situation and not your Anxiety and/or Depression. This is one MAJOR way that you can lessen the impact of both of these disorders. 

I'll end with two hypotheticals to illustrate the importance of this process:

1) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail, and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right of you. Immediately and instinctually, you run forward several meters, eager to get away from the snake and out of its sight. For the rest of your hike, you're consumed with thoughts of snakes. Every stick, root, branch, and movement in the grass signals SNAKE and your adrenaline and stress become more actively engaged. Your baseline anxiety goes up, tainting the peaceful hike.

2) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right. Immediately you stop, breathe, and take a closer look. Upon further inspection from a safe distance, you realize that what you thought was a snake is actually a stick. Noticing your heart racing, you take a few mindful breaths and re-ground yourself. For the rest of your hike, you're able to take in the beauty and nature, more present and calm, having down-regulated from the snake scare. You enjoy the peaceful hike.

Our world certainly has its share of snakes, but through differentiation, we come to realize that they are not as rampant as we might fear.