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.
March 12, 2014 @ 9:55 am
Jim: this fits well with my reaction to a textbook I was reading (for Learning Ally) that was trying to identify the “ideal” management style. My reaction was “there isn’t, and can’t be, a single ideal management style–it depends on the individuals you’re managing and the current situation.” But the graphs you present are a good, concrete illustration of one possible reason WHY.
March 12, 2014 @ 10:58 am
This is really interesting. I tend to live on the right side of the anxiety graph pretty much all the time. What I’ve noticed is managing the anxiety is often what eases the depression and gives me the clarity and psychic space to be productive. But when either the anxiety or depression ramp up, I have an almost impossible double battle to fight and even the simplist things feel insurmountable. Today I wrote for 40 minutes without distraction. I will celebrate that as a major win.
Jim C. Hines
March 12, 2014 @ 10:59 am
Sounds like a win to me!
March 12, 2014 @ 11:19 am
Nice post, Jim.
Even though you did simplify the data, you clearly explained the math.
As a mathie, it’s nice to see math used in a constructive and accurate manner (except for the use of “exponentially” which isn’t entirely accurate, but I understand it’s part of the vernacular so others probably won’t mind).
Jim C. Hines
March 12, 2014 @ 11:23 am
I did hesitate a little over the term exponentially. Because it’s been a very long time since math, what would the entirely accurate term be?
March 12, 2014 @ 11:37 am
When anxiety is “X” and productivity “Y” can be represented as 2X or 3X, then you would simply say that productivity can be increased “by a factor of 2 or 3 (etc) times” the change in anxiety.
Basically, you’re looking at the slope increasing to +2 or +3 (on the left side of the curve) or -2 or -3 (on the right side of the curve).
For productivity to be “exponentially” greater, then productivity “Y” would be expressed as an EXPONENTIAL function of X, in other words, productivity “Y” would be equal to X squared (X^2) or X cubed (X^3) with respect to anxiety “X”.
You usually won’t get an exponential function when you’re comparing the rate of change between 2 points (delta X), since the original function is a normal curve and not a power of 3 or greater.
Hope that makes sense. 🙂
March 12, 2014 @ 12:28 pm
Yup, I’ve had experiences that much up to this pretty well and have been dealing with finding that high point in the anxiety curve during graduate school. When I was taking 3 classes and trying to manage research, I was a little too far to the right, but now that I’m down to one class and managing my own research (ie not many deadlines/hand-holding from my advisor), I’m suddenly too far to the left for the first time in my life. I don’t feel much motivation to get up and get to it since no one will notice if I slough off for a day or seven D:. I’ve always relied on the that bit of stress from looming external deadlines with horrible consequences that motivating myself without them is unfortunately difficult….
March 12, 2014 @ 1:54 pm
After some caffeine realized the error of my ways earlier.
An exponential function, by definition, is written as 2^X, or 3^X (2 to the power of X, 3 to the power of X, etc).
Forget most of what I posted earlier.
Back to staring out the window at the snow…
March 12, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
Really interesting. As someone who suffers from both anxiety and depression, I can relate. I look bad at the shambles depression made of my undergrad career, and I kick myself for not seeking help at the time. Of course, there were far fewer options back in the 80s in terms of drugs to treat depression. By the time I was in grad school in the 90s, I did seek help, and it is probably why I was able to carry on and get through it. I bumped into fellow grad students in the counseling center at the student health center, and we used to joke that they should just start putting prozac in the drinking water on campus. Nowadays, doctors seem more likely to just prescribe drugs for depression (I know, because when I’ve gone to my doctor for depressive symptoms in recent years, he’s just whipped out the pen and written a prescription rather than referring me to any sort of psychologist), but back in grad school, the experience of talking to a counselor and participating in a therapy group was a helpful part of the process.
March 12, 2014 @ 5:01 pm
For some reason overlaying these graphs never occurred to me, even though I’m familiar with both curves.
For me the Productivity/Depression graph isn’t a 1:1 step – it’s a curve, with an ugly tipping point. This suggests that my sweet spot might be truly sweet, depending on the relationship between my anxiety and my depression.
Also: I’ve been meaning to ask Sandra to graph how SHE thinks my days are going, and to do this without telling me or showing me the graph for a month. I suspect I’ll learn a lot more that way.
March 13, 2014 @ 3:02 am
Never heard that anxiety could be a good thing, but it totally makes sense in the way of being alert and motivated to change something. (Even if it is a Doctor Who DVD.)
And as for not being productive because of depression, I thought you’d relate to this piece about Shawn Colvin.
March 13, 2014 @ 3:58 am
The anxiety curve makes me think of the arousal curve with reference to dog training, and the performance of dogs in sports like agility. You’re shooting for that middling level of arousal. It makes sense that all animals (and biologically speaking, humans are animals) would show a similar relationship.
The intersection between anxiety and depression is interesting in humans also. I find that depression and anxiety go hand in hand, and some of the drugs used to treat will reduce both. So long as the anxiety is pushed down to the middle level of the curve, this would improve productivity. But what if you have a drug that makes you less depressed, but actually notches the anxiety level down to the point where one is unmotivated?
Jim C. Hines
March 13, 2014 @ 8:02 am
I could definitely see depression being more of a curve … I’m kind of visualizing it now as a gentle slope that ends in a cliff. With pointy rocks at the bottom. And also sharks. With lasers on their heads.
Jim C. Hines
March 13, 2014 @ 8:03 am
“I think there’s a misconception that if one is an artist and, like myself, sings sad or sensitive material, that you’re risking losing that if you treat depression,” she said. “But when I’ve been seriously biologically depressed I’m actually unable to do anything.”
“In fact, being treated for depression restores me to be able to do what I do,” Colvin explained.
Yes. Thank you.
Jim C. Hines
March 13, 2014 @ 8:05 am
That’s a good question. Not only is it a matter of finding the right treatment for each person’s individual condition, but when you’re fighting more than one battle, trying to find the right combination … yeah, it can get messy fast.
March 15, 2014 @ 6:09 am
Those graphs make total sense, and definitely match with my experiences. Unfortunately, once I get too far right on the curve, I tend to either drop everything, or keep soldiering on, and neither option has ever been particularly successful. Maybe next time I’ll remember this and try drop one or two little things before I get too stressed/depressed to function.
Thanks for this.
March 19, 2014 @ 12:38 pm
This is fantastic, thanks for posting.
Those graphs make a lot of sense to me and I’m already using them to adjust how I work and how to react to anxiety and stress. The second one also gives me another point to make in a presentation I need to give in a few weeks which has moved me left on the anxiety graph. Double win!
March 27, 2014 @ 5:33 pm
One of the drivers of productivity is desire. The Anxiety graph reaches 0 productivity at 0 anxiety, but if desire is above 0, productivity should still be positive. To me, the (0,0) point on the graph is describing something I think of as a type or symptom of depression: the still point where affect is flat in all directions and there’s no motivation to take any action at all. Some people call it “gray depression”; I think of it as a planar potential energy surface, and one of the more terrifying mental states. If desire exists, then motivation is nonzero, and some productivity is probably taking place.