Go figure, I’ve been writing and rewriting my anxiety posts because I want to get them exactly right. I also realized a little late that I missed my weekly scheduled post, and they aren’t quite done, so for this week I want to revisit a cognitive tool that helps me tremendously with regards to both anxiety and depression. I have mentioned it in a previous post before (which I can’t seem to find, otherwise I would link it), and I call it my “one victory” tool.
It’s pretty simple. When I am in my most depressive, most anti-productive moods, or my most anxious and overwhelmed moods, I basically give myself a simple deal. I will do a single thing, the smallest, most insignificant thing, and call it a victory. I only need to get one for the day. If, afterwards, I still feel crappy and depressive, or frustrated and overwhelmed, or all of those things and more… then I can stop. Just one victory for the day, no matter how minor.
There’s a trick here though, which is that it’s not a trick. I legitimately give myself that permission to do nothing else useful for the day. If my room looks like a pile of garbage because I had three exams in two days and I’m exhausted, and I look at it and just think “no, it’s too much,” then I give myself an honest choice. Do one thing, throw away one piece of trash or pick up one shirt and throw it in the hamper, literally a single thing, and I can stop after that if I want. I can go back and be a blob if I really want to.
I’ve tried to use cognitive tricks on myself in the past, and they don’t really work. I know I’m lying to myself, and thus they always short circuit. The thing is, this is not a trick. I know I will feel better if I’ve done something, no matter how insignificant, rather than nothing. That feeling will usually be the makings of a humble avalanche that gives me a little more energy to get a little more done. But if, for some reason, I am still truly exhausted and overwhelmed… well, okay. Back to being a blob. At least something got done, no matter how minor. Things are better. Most importantly, I kept my promise to myself, which means that I take that bargain in good faith in the future. Again, it’s not a trick, and I am not lying to myself, and no matter what happens, I feel a little better. Win-win.
If you want to stop reading there, go for it, but I’m going to explain a little why I think this works.
Something that’s interesting about anxiety and depression is that they are a little opposed to each other, yet they are also often comorbid. That’s the psych term for “disorders that occur together.” Anxiety can look like nervous energy, restlessness, and fear; depression can look like giving up and not moving at all. Why do the two seem to happen at the same time? Well, apart from the chemical reason (which is most easily described as “serotonin being weird and complicated, trust me, it’s wild”), the two lead into each other just as a matter of course.
If you are nervous and worried all the time, just because, then there is never any way that you can take care of every worry or every threat. It’s not that there’s always more to take care of, it’s that you are just always worried, whether there’s a reason or not. There’s always more to do and stress about if you look hard enough!
On the one hand, this looks like chronic stress, which weakens your immune system, makes you get worse sleep, have less energy, think less clearly, and have less time for things that are fun because you’re always trying to take care of threats. That looks a lot like depression. On the other hand, you can easily develop the feeling that things will never get better, that things won’t ever be solved, because there’s just always something else and the problems never seem to end. That can make you feel hopeless, and that looks like depression too.
Meanwhile, if you start with depression and have less energy and motivation to take care of things, tasks and responsibilities can pile up. You can develop the attitude that you never finish everything, which means that there is always something more that you’re missing… and sure enough, that looks like anxiety. You can develop the attitude that you always screw up and that you can’t do anything, and that means the threats will close in, make you nervous, worried, and then you just want to escape and hide.
The reason that I feel like the “one victory” trick works so well (for me, anyhow) is that I am constantly analyzing and assessing how things are going. I have a tough time logically believing “things are hopeless” if I literally just saw an improvement. Things can’t be hopeless forever--something just changed for the better! Sure it was minor, but it exists. You can’t make a logical assertion “everything sucks” and have it be true if I can point to something that doesn’t suck.
Another issue that I have is that I tend to imagine things in their entirety, and “one victory” takes me away from that. When I think “clean my room,” I look at all the stuff I have to do, and that might be an hour worth of effort. If I’m tired, then I don’t feel like an hour’s worth of effort is in me, and I don’t start. I get overwhelmed because I instantly begin imagining all the random crap I have to do. On the other hand, if I focus on a single manageable task, and I let myself stop after… what’s to get overwhelmed by? I can finish within twenty seconds, and be back in bed feeling terrible if I want to. If I don’t want to stop there, then the next victory is also just twenty seconds of effort. It transforms the whole thing into a lot of small steps, each of which I can complete with little effort, and the overwhelming feeling starts to dissipate.
There are days where I’ve kept that promise to myself, and gone back into bed after throwing away like, one candy wrapper or something. While that outcome is pretty rare, I don’t consider it a failure of the technique. After all, it got me out of bed, and improved my situation a little. A win is a win. Not a big win, no, but my alternative was “being in bed doing nothing, feeling terrible.” Now, my situation is “being in bed, having done one thing, feeling less terrible.” It’s an objective improvement. It is another piece of evidence in my brain that I can overcome that crappy feeling, even if only for a little bit, to make things better. Later, when I feel better, I might get another thing done, and another, and another… but even if it’s just one victory, it’s better than nothing.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.