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How to live a happy life with depression and anxiety

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You’ll probably never realize how important your mental health is until you start suffering by living with depression and anxiety.

I should know.

At the age of 22, soon after I graduated from UC Berkeley in May of 2004, I started living alone in a small studio apartment. I also started a new stressful job and entered what ended up being an unhealthy relationship.

On top of all that, my parents were going through a bitter divorce and my childhood home was being foreclosed.

Within a few months of graduating college, I started losing my appetite, couldn’t sleep, and had bouts of severe panic where I would lock myself in the bathroom at work and start sobbing. I felt like the walls were closing in on me and I couldn’t breathe.

For numerous reasons, I contemplated ending my life. I thought that I couldn’t go on like this, waking up in the morning with dread and despair at the pit of my stomach. The chronic panic and anxiety felt like someone was choking me.

“Depression is a lonely dark passenger that thrives on isolation. It feeds on dark thoughts and anxiety is his ugly sidekick who likes to push you into a corner and strangle you with fear and worry.”

Pantea Rahimian, LCSW

Thinking about suicide is overwhelming but it’s common when you feel like there is no end to your suffering. I didn’t have a plan but the thoughts were pervasive, especially at night when my anxiety was paralyzing and I couldn’t sleep.

If you’re suffering and in immediate need of help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.

What I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self

Now, when I think back at this time in my life, I wish I could go back to talk to and hug my 22-year-old self.

I would look into her eyes, and tell 22-year-old Pantea that she was going to be alright. I would assure her that this phase that she was going to go through is going to be one of the hardest in her life, but it will also make her incredibly strong.

While embracing my 22-year old self, I would whisper in her ear and tell her that she will realize how resilient, courageous and resourceful she is. Even though she is suffering and in severe emotional pain, these feelings are temporary and will eventually go away.

Two women hugging

Above all, the experiences of living with depression and anxiety will lead her down the most amazing path professionally and personally. I would remind her that even when she’s at the point of despair, she’ll come out of this, and on the other side will be renewed hope.

How to have self-compassion when living with depression and anxiety

I wish I had more self-compassion when I was younger since I often doubted myself, my abilities and suffered from imposter syndrome.

Especially when I was an adolescent, I never thought that I was enough. Difficult life experiences and growing pains have taught me that I am strong and that I can endure.

I can’t go back in time to talk to my 22-year-old self.

Instead, I consciously choose to work on my mental wellness.

Every single day.

It is very hard.

Some days are far worse than others.

Although depression and his ugly sidekick anxiety are unwelcome dark passengers, I’ve learned how to compartmentalize them so they don’t have power over me or my life.

A woman covering her eyes and crying because of grief and loss

Living through a pandemic has shown me how incredibly vulnerable we all are and if you have a mental illness, like depression or anxiety, it has been even harder.

Remember, if you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, you’re not alone.

What to do if you’re suffering from living with depression and anxiety

Acknowledge that you’re not alone.

How is it that one person can be ok with a stressful event while another person can not?

It has a lot to do with how your parents responded to stressors and your environment in your early childhood.

1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Remember, everyone faces challenges that can impact their mental health.

Throughout the pandemic, many people who had never experienced mental health challenges found themselves struggling for the first time. If you found that it impacted your mental health, you are not alone.

In fact, of the almost half a million individuals that took an anxiety screening, 79% showed symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety.

Be kind to yourself

So often I would berate myself for having depression and anxiety. I felt angry with myself for not being stronger, or tougher.

In fact, I would get frustrated that I was easily tired, overwhelmed, irritated, and had low energy.

Thoughts like “what is wrong with me” would often run through my head.

Now I realize that living with depression and anxiety is like a full-time job in itself.

Just having the wherewithal to get out of bed can sometimes feel like a chore.

So I would remind you to be kind to yourself.

This is a journey and when you focus on being kind and loving towards yourself, the journey will be much easier.

Focus on the present moment

Try your best to approach one day at a time, one hour at a time, and try your best not to think too much about the past or the future.

Remember that anxiety feeds on worry and making crazy and unrealistic predictions about the future. Depression likes to harp on everything that went wrong in your past.

Can you travel back to the past or jump to the future?

No, you can’t.

To avoid feeding your anxiety or depression, focus on being present and in the moment. One activity that has really helped me combat my depression and anxiety is practicing mindfulness meditation.

To learn more on how to get started you can read the best meditation tips for beginners.

Get help from a doctor and psychotherapist

One thing that I really wish I had done when I first started losing my appetite and had difficulty sleeping was to get help from a doctor.

I remember one day I was having such severe panic attacks that I could barely breathe while driving on the freeway.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack you’ll understand what I mean. If you haven’t, pull over and don’t attempt to operate a vehicle in the midst of a panic attack.

Having a panic attack feels like a heart attack so I went to urgent care at Kaiser. I was fortunate to have a compassionate internist who listened to me while I was shaking and crying.

A woman doctor talking to a young female patient who is living with depression and anxiety

This doctor responded by putting his hand on my arm and telling me that he was going to help me. He did not judge me or minimize my feelings. He said I was having a panic attack and then he would find someone for me to talk with.

The moral of the story…don’t wait to get help.

Perhaps the symptoms that you’re experiencing have something to do with your physical health and not your mental health, but you’ll never know unless you see a doctor.

I wish I had gotten help sooner because it would have prevented months of insomnia, spiraling anxiety, panic, and suffering from depression.

If you’re ready, this is how to start therapy the right way.

10 ways to improve your depression and anxiety every day

I know that living with mental illness isn’t easy.

As I said, some days are better than others but I no longer take my mental health for granted. I work hard on it every, single day.

It’s not a matter I take lightly and I no longer think it’s a chore. My mental health is as important to me as my physical health.

1. Meditate in the mornings

Every morning I wake up and practice gratitude, set a positive intention, and meditate for 5 minutes. This helps me feel positive, grounded, and purposeful every day.

Pantea Rahimian practicing meditation

Remember that these practices are backed up by science and have shown that they rewire your brain. This is a natural way to improve the chemical imbalance in your brain and avoid medication.

2. Go outside and take a walk

Going for a walk distracts you from your worries and releases muscle tension. Even better, try listening to music which has shown a decrease in stress.

Every day I go outside and walk during my breaks at work to get natural sunlight, knowing that this is important for my brain health.

A woman walking outside alone during the coronavirus lockdown

Getting exposure to sunlight helps you get vitamin D. This helps combat depression, bolster your immune system and improve your sleep.

3. Follow a Mediterranean diet

Remember that food is important therefore focus on eating well and nourishing yourself with healthy organic meals. I know what I eat makes a difference in how I feel inside and out.

Don’t take your physical health for granted and remember you are what you eat.

4. Have a good support system

Your community is one of the most important parts of improving your mental health. Your support system is key in helping you navigate the dark periods of living with depression and anxiety.

For that reason, I surround myself with people that nurture me, make me laugh, and help me feel loved. My community of friends and family help support me by validating and respecting my feelings.

Two women sitting and laughing next to each other

During the pandemic, many women found that their friendships may have changed. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Letting go of relationships that don’t add value to your life will help you feel better in the long run.

5. Don’t neglect your sleep

Sleep is critical for my mental wellness so I focus on getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night. When I don’t sleep well, my anxiety skyrockets, I’m irritable and I get triggered easily. I try my best to follow a healthy sleep routine.

If you want to learn more, check out how to put your racing mind to bed and sleep now!

6. Have a relaxing evening routine

At night before I go to bed I take some deep breaths, write in a gratitude journal, and meditate again.

A woman lying down in a bathtub relaxing is a good way to clear your racing mind before sleep

Whether I had a good day or a bad day, I try my best to find something meaningful and positive that happened and take note of it.

What is your evening routine like and what can you do differently to feel better?

7. Consider taking medication

For a long time, I had an internal battle because I hated the idea of having to take an antidepressant. I followed my psychiatrist’s recommendation after I finally accepted that the medication might help me.

Medication turned my life around and it may benefit you, so try considering it if you’re feeling terrible and nothing else has helped you.

Remember that it is unlikely that you will take this medication forever. Antidepressants help improve the chemical imbalance in your brain so you can function better.

With the aid of psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle changes, your mood will improve. Over time and with the help from your psychiatrist, you can wean yourself off the medication.

8. Exercise is your magic drug

If you want your depression and anxiety to improve and you don’t want to take medication, then the best activity is outdoor exercise.

Moreover, I exercise and do yoga 5 days a week because it’s an activity that helps me relax, get stronger, and feel better physically and mentally.

A person wearing a helmet riding a bicycle on the street to get in shape for their New Year's Resolutions fitness goal

Exercise naturally boosts your mood because it increases endorphins and dopamine, the chemicals in your brain that make you happy and stabilize your mood.

9. Be kind to yourself

Your mind can be your best friend or worst enemy. As someone who struggles with living with depression and anxiety, I am amazed by the kinds of thoughts that run through my brain throughout the day.

To be honest, I’m sometimes shocked at my inner critic and have to practice self-compassion when these crazy thoughts start popping up.

Try it by speaking to yourself as you would to a trusted friend. You’ll notice a difference in how you feel.

10. Go outside

Make an effort to go outside every day, spend time in nature and surround yourself with people.

The minute you decide to walk outside the door is when you realize that you actually have more power than depression and anxiety. They don’t rule you nor will they have power over you if you don’t let them.

Will your depression and anxiety get better?

You know what, this is something that I asked myself all the time when I was 22 and feeling like I was going to die.

I would ask myself, I would ask my psychiatrist, my therapist, my best friend, and my family.

Will I get better? How long will I live like this? I hate this. This isn’t fair.

The answer is simple.

Yes, you will get better.

Your condition is fully treatable, it just takes time.

There’s no magic pill that you can take and feel 100% better the next day.

The cocktail to healing from living with depression and anxiety is a combination of psychotherapy, psychotropic medication, exercise, good nutrition/hydration, social connection, sleep hygiene, and time.

It also depends on the severity of your depression and anxiety.

If you’ve experienced complex trauma and have PTSD, your timeline for healing and improvement will differ from someone who has postpartum depression or situational depression.

No two people are alike and therefore the treatment for one person may differ from another.

I can only say that I truly believe in a holistic approach to treating mental health so I can attest to exercise, daily self-care, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, social connection, sleep hygiene, and nutrition since these will help you feel better no matter what.

For some people, just taking action on those things will help them feel better in a short period of time. For others, they need medication because they have a hard time functioning like I did when I did not want to eat or sleep.

Wrap-up

I wish I had known in my darkest days that the pain and suffering I was feeling from living with depression and anxiety would help me in the future because I would empathize with others in a more compassionate way.

As a clinical psychotherapist, I talk to people every day who are experiencing severe stress, worry, panic, anxiety, and depression.

I don’t tell them my story, but I understand how they feel.

Looking back at my journey, I feel grateful that those awful experiences led me to where I am today. I pursued a master’s degree in social work to help others and I now have the tools, competency, and clinical license to assess, treat and help someone get better.

What a gift that truly is for me.

So what I want to tell you is that what you’re going through is going to be terrible and hard for a while, but it will get better, I promise.

You just have to trust that it will get better and know that this experience and phase of your life will help you tremendously.

Remember, just on the other side of this darkness is light and you have the courage inside you to get there.

What experiences have helped you overcome your depression and anxiety? What tips would you share with someone who is struggling and feeling overwhelmed because of their mental health? Please share your stories and comments below.

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