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Graphing Depression and Anxiety

My therapist shared something interesting earlier this week. With the caveat that this is all a bit simplified, and human brains don’t fit into neat lines and graphs, it still helped me to think a little differently about depression and anxiety and stress, and to understand both myself and certain other people in my life a little better.

She started by drawing the following graph:

This fits pretty well with my experience. There’s a relatively straightforward relationship here. The more depressed you are, the less productive you are. (Giving lie to the myth of the tortured artist who’s most productive when they’re depressed.)

Next, she drew a graph of anxiety.

This one also made sense, once we talked about it a bit. If you have absolutely no anxiety, you end up with a lot less motivation to produce anything. Take away all of my deadlines, and I’m definitely less productive and more likely to spend an evening bumming around on the couch watching Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On the other hand, too much anxiety can be crippling, with the far extreme being someone who can’t even leave their room or home.

So basically, we want to minimize depression and find a healthy and moderate level of productive anxiety. Got it. So far, so good.

What gets interesting, at least for me, is looking at the implications of the two models. If depression is more of a linear thing, it means you have that straightforward goal of getting as far to the left as possible. This also means small steps to fight the depression are more likely to have small steps in improving your productivity. It tends to be a long, slow battle.

I’ve been in therapy and on medication for depression for about two years now. This has had a pretty large impact on the depression, and when you look at my productivity these days … well, I’m doing two books in 12 months instead of my usual one. Smaller improvements have led to smaller changes in productivity, like being able to keep up with washing the dishes. Again, it’s not a perfect graph, but it makes sense to me.

I sketched in two sample changes in mood. If the depression improves by X, productivity also improves by X. That tends to hold true whether you’re really depressed or in a generally good space. (Yes, I’m simplifying the math and assuming a 1:1 slope.)

Anxiety, on the other hand, resembles a bell curve. That means any given change in your anxiety can have drastically different results, depending on where you happen to be on that curve.

Look at this next graph. Both of the horizontal lines, indicating a change in anxiety, are the same. The vertical lines, showing change in productivity, are not.

For someone near that ideal middle-ground, a small increase in anxiety of amount X could have a relatively small impact on productivity, perhaps X or even X/2. On the other hand, if you’re more anxious, the same increase of X in your anxiety could have a much larger impact, hurting productivity by a factor of 2X, 3X, or more.

Likewise, for someone who’s struggling with anxiety, removing just a small stressor could have a very large impact, and help exponentially.

And the exact same increase in anxiety can actually boost productivity for someone to the left of the curve as much as it hurts someone to the right.

This was an AHA moment for me. I spend a fair amount of time working with people and trying to motivate them, whether it’s my employees at the day job or my children at home, and looking at that Anxiety graph helped to crystallize why the same tactic can have very different results for different people … or even for the same people at different times.

Someone on the left side, who seems to be slacking because they don’t really care? Maybe their anxiety needs to be turned up a bit, by talking about potential consequences. On the other hand, for someone on the right side of the graph who’s already close to a panic attack, potential consequences are likely to push them even further, making things that much harder for them. In that case, trying to take a little of that anxiety off their shoulders can help tremendously.

I see some of the same effects with the way stress and anxiety intertwine in my life. There’s a certain middle ground where I can add or remove things I need to get done, and it doesn’t have much of an impact. But once I hit that tipping point, just a small increase in stress can drag me down hard.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a bit of an oversimplification. Human beings tend to be pretty complicated and messy. But seeing depression and anxiety drawn out like this was really helpful for me, so I figured I’d share it in the hope that it might help a few of you as well.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:08 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I kind of hate the myth of the tortured artist. I spent five years of my life cycling through depressive, manic, mixed, and psychotic episodes. I've gotten more done in the past six months of relative stability than I did in all those five years.

The anxiety graph was new to me, and even just looking at it for a few minutes, I've found it very helpful in thinking about my crazy brain stuff. Thanks.
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:15 pm (UTC)
Very glad it's helpful!

And yeah. Having been a writer with untreated depression and having been a writer with more-or-less-controlled depression, that myth is utter goblin dung, and should be killed with sharp heavy things.
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:09 pm (UTC)
Oh dear. This suggests to me that what I consider "normal functioning" is actually "teetering at the top of the anxiety curve."

Because deadlines getting too close completely fucks me up. I need them way out on the horizon, or I panic. *g*
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:13 pm (UTC)
Everyone's going to have their own level of optimum stress/anxiety/productivity. I think my own bell curve climbs and falls pretty steeply. The more stress and deadlines, the more productive I get, until you add one more feather to the pile, at which point I come crashing down like a whale in a Douglas Adams novel.
(no subject) - fwilde - Mar. 12th, 2014 02:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 12th, 2014 02:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fwilde - Mar. 12th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:14 pm (UTC)
I remember that graduate school orientation featured someone from the campus health clinic showing us something like that anxiety chart (though the axis was 'stress', not 'anxiety'), with the reminder that if we found ourselves on the right side of the curve, that we had resources to help.

Since telling graduate students to de-stress is both futile and not helpful when they are used to being well to the left, where stress helps them get things done, I thought it was effective.
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:16 pm (UTC)
My therapist presented it as anxiety, but I think stress works just as well in understanding the concept.

I wish more places would share the kind of information your grad school did!
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Mar. 12th, 2014 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yes. I have recently started treating the anxiety separately from the depression. Different medications for each. Being able to adjust the anxiety medication to fit where I am on that bell-curve has made life much easier.
Mar. 12th, 2014 02:51 pm (UTC)
My depression is much better these days, and while I have the occasion bad day or two, I can usually work through them (in part because the work helps distract me).

The anxiety though...the regular deadline kind of anxiety definitely motivates me to work (sort of like having a cannon aimed at your head is motivating), but panic attacks themselves (which have been at an all-time high for the last few years, thank you menopause hormones, you sadistic sons of bitches)bring me down to almost zero productivity.

The human brain...sigh.
Mar. 12th, 2014 03:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, I REALLY like the anxiety bell curve. What a clear and simple way of explaining it!
Mar. 12th, 2014 03:19 pm (UTC)
People forget than when Van Gogh did most of his brilliant painting was when he was *out* of his manic or depressed phases.

For me in bipolar 2 land, I am ridiculously productive if I drop into hypomania, and any art I produce there is crap. (Data entry-style work, though, stays good.)
Mar. 12th, 2014 04:29 pm (UTC)
Van Gogh needed to spend more time traveling with the Doctor.
Mar. 12th, 2014 04:13 pm (UTC)
On a related note, I've heard it said that you should not accept a job offer for which you feel no anxiety. If you are 100% confident that you can waltz in and ace the job, then it isn't for you as it doesn't present any challenge.

But what do I know, I've been unemployed for a year and a half.
Mar. 12th, 2014 04:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think that makes sense if you've got options, but eventually, needing a paycheck becomes the top priority.
(no subject) - thewayne - Mar. 12th, 2014 05:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - klwilliams - Mar. 12th, 2014 06:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2014 04:24 pm (UTC)
Gosh, we are all such a bunch of geeks.
Mar. 12th, 2014 04:28 pm (UTC)
In other news, water is wet! ;-)
(no subject) - replyhazy - Mar. 12th, 2014 04:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lenora_rose - Mar. 13th, 2014 03:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - replyhazy - Mar. 13th, 2014 04:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 13th, 2014 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2014 06:36 pm (UTC)
Regarding anxiety, I've long known that it is very important to worry, but to worry only the correct amount. This leads to emitting worrions, and as physicists can tell you, emitting too many or too few worrions can be catastrophic.

Regarding depression, I suspect that the graph for the other side, mania, is similar. A little bit of mania is great for productivity (and feels great), but the more mania the more movement but the less productivity.

I'm glad you're getting help and making progress.
Mar. 12th, 2014 06:55 pm (UTC)
I went through some years of severe depression when I was in my early twenties, long before stabilizing drugs were invented. Yes, it's crippling, all right! I made some of the worst decisions of my life as well as being unable to accomplish much.

I'm just damn lucky that my kind of depression responds to talk therapy. That's the basis of my belief, just btw, that "depression" is not one illness but a catch-all label for several illnesses that are not well understood yet. It's crucial that the patient gets the right treatment for their particular illness.
Mar. 12th, 2014 06:56 pm (UTC)
you are working at understanding and managing what you have going on, which is key to a lot of things.

My peak anxiety marker is ironing.. if I am ironing the sheets the world is about to end..
Mar. 12th, 2014 06:58 pm (UTC)
Out of concern for the future of our world, I will be sending someone over to take your iron away.
(no subject) - martianmooncrab - Mar. 12th, 2014 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2014 10:58 pm (UTC)
I have often suspected that one of the reasons people cling to mild depression is because it serves as a coping mechanism for underlying anxiety. If all your reactions are damped down just enough, you don't feel as horrible as you would from the anxiety, and the depression isn't nearly as horrible as other people's.
Mar. 12th, 2014 11:17 pm (UTC)
Depends on the person. But for myself? Nope. Not even close.

Beyond the whole chemical issue (for myself there is an underlying chemical twist to my biology that pretty much creates a filter for me, in effect, between the world and myself), if I concede the point of "cling to mild depression" as a behavioural issue.. From an abusive childhood the only point at which the world was normal was when things were horrible. Things I liked or was happy with often were destroyed, belittled or taken from me. Happiness scared me. Manic episodes terrify me more than depressive ones as they are the height one falls from, not the height that one climbs to, if you see the point.

Happiness equates to something I'm not allowed to have and it involves messages like hubris for wanting, arrogance for wishing, selfishness for hoping.

So again, no. Anxiety and stress were intermingled but also independently driven issues.

At age 17 I had ulcers and clinical depression with the beginnings of my cycles into and out of manic episodes. Anxiety triggered depression, as a teenager, because I couldn't cope or simply "let go of the anxiety". Aka : I failed. So obviously I was useless.

Every waking moment was spent being terrified of being seen. And when I was, it was a pretty good chance the spiral was into deep depression because of an after-the-fact analysis of my interactions with people.
(no subject) - ethelmay - Mar. 12th, 2014 11:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Mar. 12th, 2014 11:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ethelmay - Mar. 13th, 2014 01:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 13th, 2014 03:15 am (UTC)
Yes. This.. Thank you.
Mar. 13th, 2014 06:14 am (UTC)
Thanks for this. It makes me feel a little better about what I'm struggling with right now. I need some anxiety backed off and other parts upped, and the depression cranked way back. Here's to hoping.
Mar. 13th, 2014 12:07 pm (UTC)
Good luck!!!
Mar. 13th, 2014 10:02 am (UTC)
Totally agree with this. Depression doesn't help me or anyone I know. The myth of the gloomy artist needing drama to create art is rubbish! :/ Hopefully we can dial the depression down. *Knocks on wood...*

With anxiety, I think it's different for everyone, and that should be respected. Moderate anxiety levels can motivate some and kill motivation for others. *nodnods*

Edited at 2014-03-13 10:04 am (UTC)
Mar. 13th, 2014 12:06 pm (UTC)
Yep. Basically, everyone's optimal point is going to be different.
Mar. 13th, 2014 12:01 pm (UTC)
That anxiety curve makes SO MUCH SENSE. Starting when I was a teen, and honestly until a few years ago, I couldn't get things done until I was under deadline. I did my best work when pushed hard. Then Life decided to start adding new pressures and I've slipped over the top, and am discovering that it's hard to remove those additional pressures in order to get back to the good level of anxiety that lets me crank things out.

Looking at the graphs has my not-awake brain twisting on things now, because it's trying to figure out the best overlay on how the two intertwine. Seeing it drawn out IS hugely helpful, and for me, very timely. Thank you for the food for thought (which my brain shall chew on until I'm awake enough to digest properly).
Mar. 13th, 2014 12:08 pm (UTC)
I'm very glad it's helpful!

My brain seems to work in similar ways. I'm most productive with deadlines and a fair amount of stress, but there's also a tipping point, after which I turn into a flailing Muppet of uselessness...
(no subject) - deatwood - Mar. 13th, 2014 12:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 13th, 2014 12:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 13th, 2014 12:14 pm (UTC)
I like the the right half of the anxiety curve, but I think the left needs a major amendment. While it's certainly possible *to* be motivated by anxiety - lots of people work to deadlines and get everything done at the last minute - _you're still operating under anxiety_ and in my book you should never try to motivate anyone (self, children, animals) with the fear of bad consequences in case you misjudged the strength of the anxiety or how far they are along the curve.

I've noticed in myself when I am in the 'work better when the deadline is approaching' mode that there really are *two* factors at work - and when the stress over the consequences of not-finishing remains greater than the stress over starting/doing the work I am productive (and sometimes *very* productive).

But I'm move productive and I work much better when the underlying anxiety is reduced: then I actually work on projects long ahead of the deadline!

So I don't know how to depict that yet, but I felt a pit in my stomach open at the thought of someone blissfully saying 'hey, anxiety is good for you'.
Mar. 13th, 2014 02:29 pm (UTC)
I like this comment.

I prefer to label the bell curve something like 'stress' rather than anxiety - because there are so many good and bad kinds of stress, whereas anxiety I would always take as a negative emotion.

There's the kind of stress you feel when you are watching your favorite show and a character you love is in peril, and the kind you feel when you see a complete stranger in a real car crash. There's the 'flow state' kind of stress when you are so filled with creative ideas that your heart is pumping and it's almost physically painful to have to do something other than write or draw or code or whatever your chosen way of expression is. And there's the 'I don't care about this work, but it's 1am and I have to get this done before 9am or X is going to make my life a living hell' stress.

I too am dubious about the 'consequences' kind of stress. Yes, it can make people more productive, in that you end up with them producing A Thing, rather than No Thing. But in my experience, often what you end up with is actually A Badly Put Together Thing that then turns around and bites you.

Mar. 14th, 2014 01:28 am (UTC)
I needed to see this, and I'll be taking it in to my shrink next week, if you don't mind.

She's been trying to tell me that my usual coping strategy of Just Try Harder will not work until I get some other pieces out of the way, and I think that seeing this will help remind me why Just Try Harder (also known as Any Stick To Beat Myself With) has been failing me. Way off the right side of the bell curve. And I think, if I show it to her, she'll laugh at me (in a good way) for taking so long to take her message on board. Stubbornness is good for a lot of things, but I often take it too far.
Mar. 14th, 2014 01:59 am (UTC)
Mind? By all means, if it helps, please do whatever you like with it!

"Stubbornness is good for a lot of things, but I often take it too far."

It's possible I might be able to relate to this a little too well...
Mar. 14th, 2014 03:06 am (UTC)
Someone on the left side, who seems to be slacking because they don’t really care? Maybe their anxiety needs to be turned up a bit, by talking about potential consequences.

AAAAA NO do not do this. Many people with major anxiety disguise it as "don't really care" while struggling to get anything done. You can't tell from looking at someone where they are on this curve. You really really really can't.

Also, I think motivating with anxiety is frankly poor management. You're implying that people on the left side of the curve aren't capable of motivating themselves or being motivated any other way, which is false--there are many other sources of motivation out there.

Edited at 2014-03-14 03:08 am (UTC)
Mar. 14th, 2014 05:41 pm (UTC)
I can see how this would work for others, but as someone with a chronic anxiety disorder (I remember having panic attacks at age 2), it doesn't for me. Anxiety will cause me to curl in a ball and be so afraid (of not getting it done, of doing it wrong, of fucking it up, of writing something problematic despite being well-meaning and hurting people, of not writing enough... I can go ON) that I end up completely paralyzed.

In fact, it's been part of my issue with writing for the last couple years, combined anxiety and depression. Things are starting to sort out, but if either of those get turned up? I'm non functional, period.
Mar. 15th, 2014 10:45 am (UTC)
I've never seen the anxiety bell curve before, but I feel like it mostly makes sense. I feel like it has some kind of corollary in that the peaking anxiety needs to be whatever counts as "good anxiety" for the person, so it's not just a quantitative issue, but a qualitative one. I mean, I may be feeling relatively little anxiety, but if it's the negative kind, it's still not going to motivate me. I won't feel overwhelmed by it, but I will feel annoyed by it. Then again, I have a panic disorder, so my own reactions are not very useful for constructing a general-use visual.
Mar. 18th, 2014 12:23 pm (UTC)
Thank you, this really resonated with me.
Jan. 27th, 2015 11:25 am (UTC)
Thinking about the next few days is detrimental to my mood, so I just have to fight against it, keep building the wall, and just get through each day at a time.
( 53 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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