“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is.” Byron Katie
Americans suffer from anxiety and depression at alarming rates. Affecting 40 million adults (18% of adults) in the U.S. each year, anxiety disorders hold the number one spot on the list of mental illnesses in the country. But unfortunately, only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
And for most of my adult life, I was one of them.
In 2014, I decided to stop taking the anti-anxiety medication I’d used for over a decade and get to the heart of the matter. For me, I knew that my suffering was rooted in the deep emotional pain that accompanies childhood trauma, along with myriad repressed emotions like anger and guilt and shame that had somehow embedded themselves into the very fabric of what I considered my true personality. Those deep-seated emotions served as the filter through which I defined myself and my day-to-day reality.
What we consider reality is highly subjective
Chemical imbalances notwithstanding, anxiety and depression share an important characteristic: they both use thoughts and feelings about either what might happen in the future (anxiety) or what has already happened in the past (depression) to create the current reality, or the now.
Now, I won’t go down the rabbit hole of the subjective nature of truth and reality (at least not in this blog post.) But when I consider the age-old question “Is the glass half empty or half full”, it really does strike at the core of how subjective our realities are. We build our realities—and impact our mental health—based on how we answer all kinds of questions in our lives.
Am I pretty enough to go to that casting call? Am I smart enough to get into this PhD program? Who am I to position myself as a subject-matter expert? How could she love someone like me? Do I have enough experience to apply for that promotion?
You get the point! How we answer questions like the ones in my examples determines how we act, what we pursue, and what we consider “real”.
But what if we asked different questions…
“Behind every problem is a question trying to ask itself. Behind every question is an answer trying to be revealed. Behind every answer is an action trying to take place. And behind every action is a way of life trying to be born.” Dr. Michael Beckwith
My introduction to questioning my reality (which at the time was a relentless cycle of anxiety and depression) came from New Thought minister and author Dr. Michael Beckwith. In his renowned 2013 book Life Visioning, Beckwith teaches readers to transform their world by asking what he calls empowering questions.
Instead of asking questions like “Why me?” “What am I doing wrong?” or “Do I really deserve this?” Beckwith challenges us to replace those with questions that move us forward, like:
Not unlike the cup half-full or half-empty question, Beckwith’s life visioning process provokes us to 1) become AWARE of the fact that we’ve already answered a question, even if it feels automatic, and 2) understand the questions themselves dictate the energy behind the answer.
Similarly, best-selling author and speaker Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is, walks readers through a four-question process called “the work” to reset reality and bring peace to the now. While the questions themselves seem elementary at first glance, trust me when I say they are not! The questions are:
Even if we just answer questions #1 and #2, you’ve got your “work” cut out for you! I mean, when was the last time you actually stopped long enough to challenge the thoughts that shape how you feel about yourself and your life. questioned the truth of one of your deeply-held thoughts?
Katie’s line of inquiry teaches us to become aware of the stories we tell ourselves, find the thoughts that underpins our suffering (anxiety and/or depression,) and create a new lens for viewing ourselves and our lives.
Change your questions, change your life
“I don’t let go of my concepts—I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.” Byron Katie
I’m not by any means suggesting that you can cure anxiety and depression simply by answering a bunch of random questions. But what I can personally attest to is that a “higher quality” question backs you into a corner. It forces you to give answers that create positive action and momentum instead of stagnation and rumination. My hope and prayer is that next time you find yourself in the middle of a panic attack or a depressive episode, you can reach for a better question, and let the answer help move you out of the storm.