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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 )
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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!!!
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Jim C. Hines


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