In the field of mental health, it is commonly believed that two of the most commonly diagnosed disorders, depression and anxiety, can be boiled down to one underlying issue: difficulty staying in the moment. Each condition has multiple explanatory origins, including genetic factors, chemical imbalances, distorted thinking and social/familial influences (i.e. biopsychosocial contributors). For the sake of this writing, I have chosen to sift out one piece of the complex puzzle- mindset.
In basic terms, depression is characterized by spending too much emotional time in the past, and anxiety is spending too much time worrying about the future. This is not to say that what happened in the past was not significant, hurtful, disappointing or traumantic. Its not to say that what lies ahead may appear unmanageable, scary, or overwhelming. It is to say that spending too much time thinking about what cannot be changed will make anyone feel dysregulated.
There is much healing to be done by examining what has already happened. Processing the impact of past situations allows us to better understand our own reactions, thought processes and coping skills. It allows us to reexamine how we handled ourselves and what we could have done better. It gives us the opportunity to forgive others for what they could have done better and walk away from unhealthy people, places and things that are not likely to change. It allows us to let go and move on. The key here is that moving on begins the change process, while living in the past keeps one stagnant in the feelings/emotions that come along with the period being ruminated upon. Great relief happens when we choose to let the past lie in the past and focus instead on what's happening today.
Along the same lines, spending too much emotional time in the future fixates a person in a world beyond his/her control. When we feel out of control, we can become anxious. It is responsible to look ahead and plan for one's future (i.e. investing in savings, setting personal and career goals, managing health care needs, etc.). However, no amount of planning can prevent the unpredictable reality of life itself. Stock markets crash, accidents happen and unexpected expenses arise. We cannot slow time or control other people. We can control ourselves, which means making the best preparations we can, while allowing room for surprises. To do so allows great confidence in oneself to handle the worst case scenario. Its requires flexibility, patience and the understanding that "it is what it is, and what it will be." Ruminating about what's to come doesn't prevent it from getting here. Sometimes the best outcomes arise from plans we never made. Sometimes awful things happen that we never expected, or that we couldn't prevent. Either way, tomorrow comes, and the next day, and the next. Each brings an opportunity to regroup and make the next best decision.
The largest challenge in minimizing symptoms of either depression or anxiety is learning to live in the present- aka Mindfulness. Mindfulness is achieved when a person has accepted the past for what it is and allowed the future to come as it will. Mindfulness is appreciating what's happening today. Its noticing the scenery on the commute to work. Its used in meditation, yoga, and many spiritual practices. Its trusting that one can handle what is happening; feelings don't hurt people, behaviors do. Feelings do not have to be permanent and thoughts are elective.
Becoming better at Mindfulness takes practice. A person must catch his/her thoughts when they drift into the past or the future, and bring them back to the present. There are many exercises designed to focus one's mind in the present. For example, spend a few minutes writing your name in cursive with your opposite hand. Count the number of cars that pass through the intersection while you wait at a red light. Try to name all 50 states in alphabetical order. When you become more aware of what you're thinking about, you become better able to catch yourself drifting out of this moment and into another. When it happens, tell yourself you cannot change the past or direct the future, and refocus on what's happening in front of you.
It goes to say that every diagnosis has a range of severity. For many people with chronic depression and/or extreme anxiety, extensive treatment from a multidisciplinary approach is warranted. Doctors, psychiatrists, counselors/therapists and other specialists work together to treat these diagnoses. The majority of people experience a sliver of these conditions on a temporary, more situational basis. Challening oneself to stay mindful often helps make the moment more bearable and reminds us that we only have today once beofore it becomes yesterday.