Want to Overcome Anxiety and Depression? Start by Asking a Different Question.

“What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I be normal?” “If only I can figure out why…” These common questions are asked repeatedly by those suffering from anxiety and depression.

Many people believe that answering these questions can bring about relief. So, what’s wrong with getting to the root of it? Nothing really — if you can find the root. Unfortunately, looking for it can be like chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole; it keeps getting deeper and deeper. Meanwhile, the suffering persists. And how do you know when you’ve reached it? Is there a big “aha” moment that comes with immediate relief?

Research suggests otherwise. Evidence for the effectiveness of traditional forms of therapy where clients are encouraged to find “insights” is anemic. In contrast, treatments rooted in cognitive-behavioral principles where the focus is more on “what now” have been more effective for anxiety and depression. The distinction lies between two questions: 1. “What is the cause of my problem?” and 2. “Why does this problem persist?”

Through decades of empirical research, we’ve made some headway in shedding light on contributing factors (i.e., the first question). Alas, the field is not likely to find the exact formula for what causes a given anxiety or depressive disorder for each person. It is likely that a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors are involved. Pursuing a more precise answer is akin to being drawn by a siren call. Fortunately, we’ve come to learn a lot more about what maintains anxiety and depressive disorders. Numerous tools capitalize on these “maintenance factors” to reduce suffering.

Whereas we might not know the exact reasons that a 16-year-old boy is plagued with intrusive thoughts of his perfectly healthy mother dying unless he performs repetitive washing and checking rituals, we know why the fear persists. The very act of giving into the fear by performing these compulsions combined with his mother being alive serve to validate the obsessions. This knowledge can help a therapist to develop a treatment approach that weakens this loop.

While striving to gain self-understanding, self-awareness, and knowledge should be encouraged, how we go about trying to achieve these goals may or may not be helpful. When the questions of “why me?” and “what’s wrong with me” prevent you or detract you from taking steps forward, they can be counterproductive. So ask instead, “What are some things that I am doing (or not doing)?” “What are some things I’m thinking (or not thinking) that is keeping this problem alive?”

Ask questions that prompt you to develop new ways of reacting to old problems so you increase your chances of gaining control over your life. If you ask these questions, on purpose, with intention on a daily basis, you may find that the “why me?” types of questions won’t feel as pressing.

Learn more about cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, and other forms of therapy at the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org).

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.