Updated: Mar 22
Lead with behavior to move through difficult moods and emotions.
“If I think the most important thing in life is a feeling of interior peace, I will be all the more disturbed when I notice that I do not have it.” —Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
When we’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or depression, our automatic response is usually to try to make ourselves feel better. It seems reasonable—why suffer if we can avoid it? So we listen to music to cheer ourselves up, take some deep breaths to try to soothe our nerves, or try to figure out why we feel like this.
Unfortunately these efforts often backfire, as I recently discussed with fellow CBT psychologist and Psychology Today blogger Joel Minden. “We’ve all had experiences where we think we can do something to make ourselves feel better,” said Minden, “and it doesn’t work in that moment.”
The result can be worse than simply not finding relief. “It can be really frustrating and defeating when people work so hard to try to change their emotions,” Minden said, “if they’re just not able to do that very effectively.” We can end up believing “that we don’t have coping strategies, or that we can’t deal with difficult emotions, or that we’re stuck and there’s no way out of it.”
A Better Way
So what’s the alternative? Living the best life we can, with whatever emotional experience we’re having. “For a lot of people, a much better road is to relate to the emotions rather than trying to control them,” said Minden. “It’s really important to learn to accept our authentic emotions, our inner experience, and relate to it differently so we can ultimately redirect our attention and our behavior to things that are much more fulfilling and productive.”
“Conquering” anxiety and depression doesn’t mean we’ll eliminate these experiences. “Difficult emotions are a part of life,” Minden told me. “We’re going to struggle. We’re going to have periods of anger and guilt and anxiety and sadness. These things are going to be there, they’re going to test us, and we don’t have to like them.” So rather than trying to get rid of these emotions, we can refuse to let them have the last word. And that means living the life we want.
I’ve often heard people suggest that action-focused approaches are unrealistic, and that psychologists don’t understand what it’s like to deal with anxiety or depression. But Minden and I both find that the practices we offer to others are just as helpful—and necessary—for ourselves.
Minden cited his own example of using behavioral strategies to get back to the gym—"setting alarms, making small commitments. If I do one pull-up and then I walk out of the gym, that’s fine. I did something. And of course once I started doing that regularly, it got easier, and with time I started really looking forward to it.”
I'm well acquainted with my own tendency to fixate on my emotional belly button, and to get lost in my own anxiety or depression or runaway stress response. When I developed a chronic illness that led to depression a few years ago, I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out why I felt the way I did that, in the process, I stopped really living. Part of my healing came from deciding to live now the best I could, even with my limitations.
Keep in mind that focusing on action doesn’t imply that our feelings don’t matter or that we’re supposed to be hard on ourselves. Letting go of unproductive struggles with difficult emotions is one of the most compassionate things we can do for ourselves. And as Minden suggests, part of compassion is starting small when making behavior change. “See if you can commit to a small change for a certain length of time,” he said. Then build gradually on your successes.
The following 12 action-oriented practices come from mindfulness-centered cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the best-tested approach to managing anxiety and depression. Choose one to practice each day for best results; consistency is key. (Note: These practices are adapted from The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, & Worry.)
1. Set Your Sights
Anxiety and depression often fill our minds with potential problems and feared failures, as though we’re victims of circumstance. Start to turn the tables. Decide first thing in the morning what kind of day you will have. What thoughts will you cultivate? How will you find joy? Who will you love? What quality of presence will you bring to any challenges you meet? You are the author of your days. Decide what is worthy of your energy and attention.
2. Worry vs. Problem Solving
Worrying is repetitive and unproductive, but it can often feel like you’re working through problems. Real problem solving, in contrast, is a focused way of finding solutions. When you’re worrying today, figure out whether there’s an actual problem to solve or if your mind is simply spinning its wheels. Then aim to redirect your mental energy toward productive problem solving.
3. Find Strength
When you find yourself hoping for an easy, problem-free day, shift your focus to how you’ll respond. Say to yourself, “May I find strength to meet every challenge. May I find courage to face whatever comes my way. May I find grace in all I do.” Problems are inevitable. How you handle them is up to you.
4. Define Your Best Life
When you’re tempted to avoid something today because of anxiety, ask yourself what kind of life you want to have lived. One defined by fear and avoidance? One where you played it safe, even when it meant missing out on things you cared about? Or a life of defying fear and inertia to do what mattered to you? Plan to take one action today that your future self will thank you for.
5. Take the Wheel
Emotions are noisy passengers, directing you to avoid anything that makes you anxious or that seems overwhelming. Careful! Don’t go there! Watch out! Consider today whether you want avoiding difficult feelings to be the top priority in your life. Is there something more important to you than being emotionally comfortable? If so, steer your life in that direction, and let your feelings come along for the ride.
6. Love Conquers Fear
Love and fear are opposing forces—as one grows, the other shrinks. When you’re feeling anxious or down today, ask yourself, “How can I show love to someone else?” Look for opportunities to meet the needs of those around you, even in ways they aren’t expecting. Focus on the act of loving, rather than waiting to feel loving, and see what happens. Let love be the antidote to fear.
7. Change the Conversation
Anxiety and depression often make themselves the center of our attention, leading us to ask questions like: “Why do I feel so depressed? How can I stop feeling anxious?” When you’re struggling emotionally today, ask a different question: “What task needs my attention right now?” Then redirect your energy toward doing what needs to be done, allowing your feelings to exist in the background.
8. Face Your Fears
Avoiding the things that make you uncomfortable strengthens your fears and makes your world smaller. The best way to reduce unrealistic fears is to gradually face them. Pay attention today for signs of avoidance, like putting off a task you’re not sure how to do or taking a longer route when driving because it bypasses roads that make you nervous. Pick one action you can take today to move courageously through fearful avoidance.
9. Move Through Procrastination
Falling behind on your to-do list can lead to stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. Pick something you’ve been putting off and commit to doing the first small step of it today. For example, just gather up all the dirty clothes if you need to do laundry. Getting started boosts mood, lowers anxiety, and makes it easier to keep working on the task.
10. Maximize Outdoor Time
Being in nature is known to lower anxiety and boost mood. Set a goal to be outside as much as possible today. Find any excuse to step outdoors, even for a few seconds. Go for a short walk. Open the mail outside. Dine al fresco. Take in your surroundings—the sky, the light, the plants, and the birds. Feel your spirit connect with the natural world. Focus on the experience itself, rather than on whether or not it’s helping you feel better.
11. Practice Kindness
Caring for others is an effective way to redirect our attention away from a preoccupation with how we feel. When you find that you’re stuck in difficult emotions today, think of something nice you could do for someone you know, whether a loved one or an acquaintance. What would brighten their day? Allow anxious or depressed moods to be a trigger for acts of kindness, however unexpected or even undeserved.
12. Can I Open to This?
Difficult emotions often push us to resist reality—to close ourselves off and say no to what’s happening. When you’re confronted with something difficult today, ask yourself, “Can I open to this? Am I willing to stay with my experience?” Greater peace is available when we summon the courage to face life just as it is.
One final word—watch out for the tendency to put off doing things until the motivation strikes you. “I always suggest not waiting till you’re feeling motivated to do what you care about,” said Minden. “It’s not going to be something you’re eager to do. So instead just do it anyway, and then see what happens.”
In the end, Minden’s aim is to inspire each of us to live our best life. “It’s so empowering when you can see for yourself that you can live your life, even when you’re tested by these really difficult emotions,” he said. “People see for themselves that they can have difficult emotions and still function.”