Anxiety and depression: Habits or mental illness?

Most people consider anxiety and depression to be forms of mental illness. When you think of an illness, what comes to mind? Disease? Virus? Infection? Something you catch, right?

And if you’re “infected,” then you’re a victim of a nefarious agent.

But by definition, a victim is someone who is powerless. You are NOT powerless!

What we call something is very important. Words not only shape the way we think and feel about emotional struggle, but most importantly, how we deal with it.

Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”

To me, mental “illness” isn’t almost the right word, it’s the wrong word.

So let’s change the language. Rather than illness, I’m going to suggest the seemingly heretical view that anxiety and depression be seen as habits. Habits that you generate.

Okay, whoa! I know this may seem unbelievable, even wrong, but please hear me out.

Understand, in no way am I minimizing the seriousness of these conditions. I’m only trying to empower you to take a more active role in your liberation from suffering.

You may be thinking: Aren’t anxiety and depression caused by chemical imbalances? Yes, this is true. Anxiety and depression are whole body problems affecting your emotions as well as your chemistry.

Clinical anxiety and depression are both the end result of chemical shifts in your brain chemistry. The question isn’t whether anxiety and depression are the result of a chemical imbalance, it’s what causes this imbalance.

Imagine a bucket that contains your vital emotional, balancing chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, etc.). If tiny holes are punctured in the bottom of the bucket, your chemicals can leak out. If enough holes are poked, these vital chemicals can’t be replenished fast enough and your chemistry becomes depleted.

So, how do we begin to plug up the holes?

By treating anxiety and depression as habits, you put yourself in the driver’s seat, no longer passively suffering. Since all habits are learned, all habits can be broken.

But first you have to understand what you’re doing that feeds your habit and what you can do to starve it. You feed habits of anxiety and depression with insecurity-driven crumbs of doubt, fear, and negativity.

Bottom line: thoughts can change chemistry.

Your brain has the capability of restoring its emotional-chemical balance, but only if you aren’t depleting yourself too fast. It helps to think of thoughts not just as benign mental abstractions, but as electrical-chemical events in your brain that create stress, which, over time, has a cumulative, corrosive effect on your emotional balance and brain chemistry.

Obviously, one insecurity-driven thought isn’t going to change anything. But as any worrywart knows, there’s a price to pay for the ongoing stress created by “what-iffing.” It’s called anxiety or depression.

What about genetics? Both anxiety and depression have been shown to run in families, which to many people confirms the notion that we are helpless. “It’s genetic, right?”

I’m not saying your genetic history is irrelevant; all I’m saying is that a genetic disposition (more holes poked into your bucket) is NOT a life sentence.

It’s a tendency, a lower threshold of susceptibility to anxiety or depression. Whether or not you’re predisposed is not the issue. What really matters is whether you feed or starve this tendency.

By coaching yourself to restructure your thoughts and perceptions, you begin to slow down and eventually stop this erosion. You begin to starve your habit(s).

You do this any way you can: distractions, substituting rational for irrational thinking, or simply a firm act of will: “STOP it! DROP it!”

You DO have a choice when it comes to your own thoughts. I’ve found that simply being aware of the feeding/starving nature of habits associated with anxiety and depression gives you a choice. A choice to take responsibility for scary, neurotic thinking and replace it with more rational, mature, reasonable thinking. You do this one thought at a time.

There’s no question that medication can help you replenish a depletion, but why not accelerate the healing process yourself?

Become an active participant by steering your life toward more hopeful, optimistic, thoughts. You’ve got nothing to lose except your struggle.

Dr. Joe Luciani has been a practicing clinical psychologist for more than 35 years. He’s the internationally bestselling author of the “Self-Coaching” series of books, published in ten languages. His latest book, “Thin From Within” (AMACOM) is a self-coaching, mind-over-mouth approach to achieving lifelong weight mastery. He appears frequently on national TV, radio, and the Internet and has also been featured in numerous national magazines and newspapers. Visit for more information.

[The content provided through this article and should be used for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the advice of a relevant professional with any questions about any haelth decision you are seeking to make.]

Leave a Reply