I've heard it said that anxiety is being stressed out about the future, while depression is being stressed out about the past. But the feelings are happening now. Past stress and future stress are felt as stress in the present. My anxious clients are panicked right now, they feel judged by the people in their lives—friends, family members, and strangers—whether those people are present or not, they feel those judgments right now. They feel like they're tied up in a knot in this present moment. My depressed clients have trouble getting out of bed right now, today. Their motivation is at a low point, now. Life at this moment holds no allure. The idea of purpose becomes meaningless.
Our history is what gives us wisdom (if we've been through enough and made enough mistakes), our possible futures can give us either hope or despair (depending on the choices we see ahead). But these two categories of "other times" are also what mess us up. When our symptoms have the better of us, we feel like prisoners of time, held fast in the present, surrounded by bars and walls made of stuff from sometime else. What to do, what to do?
But if these symptoms are just manifestations of out-of-control concerns about thing past or things to come, there is a way forward, out of the bad feelings. And that way is called awareness. And if we take that awareness of the real problem--the stuckness in the future or past--and reach into those other realities, we can take steps to quiet our hyper-activated concerns about them. If these emotions we feel are coming from unconscious memories, then we need to bring them to the surface. Dealing with our stuff happens consciously. And once the unconscious is made conscious, we can face the past, or the future, with the resources we have in the present. If you doubt your resourcefulness, read on.
On Wednesday we conducted a strange experiment. We traveled forward in time, into an unknown future. We all agreed that, using our powers of imagination, we could conceive of a future in which we had solved our current mood problem; that there could be a version of us up there in the mist who has figured out what to do and how to do it. Figuring it out could involve all manner of things: We could make big life decisions, we could change troubling circumstances, we could change the way we see the world or the way we behave in it, we could change our self-perceptions, we could get help. However we might be able to accomplish our therapeutic goals, the future self we chose has somehow done it. That was our scientific assumption. It was fun to imagine that future us, doing so well after working things out. That future self is real in our imaginations. It is, after all, us.
We also traveled back in time and consulted with a former version of us. This was a simpler task because our memories of the past are easier to conjure up. I use that word because memories, either past or future, are magical. Ask an attorney how reliable witnesses' memories are, especially during stressful situations. Eyewitness testimony is often worthless, because it is contradicted by either other witnesses or by facts. So remembering our past is almost as illusory as remember our future. Still, we all harked back to a time when our troubles were just starting. We all agreed that we had to have been strong to cope with all that stuff. When we went back in time to have a conversation with that younger, strong version of ourselves, we asked another question: “How did you do it?” It was the same question we asked our future self. It’s important to ask this of our younger self because if we forget how we somehow managed to cope, then we might stop being so strong in the present, and our future self might not have the strength it needs to do what must be done.
Integrating our present selves with our past and future selves is one way to find the strength to persevere through our difficulties. Just as integrating our unconscious and conscious minds is necessary to resolve the inner conflicts that keep us stuck. This inner exploration is part of psychodynamic psychology, an approach developed by Carl Jung. The therapeutic time travel technique is sometimes called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, developed by more modern theorists. On Wednesday, we worked with these approaches in an effort to make some headway against a tide of unwanted feelings. Did we do any good? Time will tell.