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This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by James Porter.

Depression Depression and anxiety are a challenge to live with, but can also be a gift. Casey Muir-Taylor CC BY-ND 2.0

When I talk with my family and friends about anxiety and depression I often call it “the gift.” People who inherit this gift tend to be deep thinkers, think outside box, and are more creative. Anxiety and depression run in both my wife’s and my own family. All my kids are artists. I’ve got one musician, one writer and one painter/graphic designer. They are all very talented, but we all get depressed and we all get anxious. This is part of the gift.

One of the books that helped me to really see this as a gift is entitled Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Shenk.  Abraham Lincoln famously suffered from depression. But in Lincoln’s day, if you wanted to hire someone brilliant and creative, other people just accepted the fact that “melancholy” (depression) was going to be part of the package. When you read this book you will see that in Lincoln’s day there was more of a tolerance for the sometimes dark and moody behavior that comes with melancholy because it comes along WITH a brilliant and creative mind.

We still get this on some level, but there’s no tolerance for it today. When you think of artists and writers like Jackson Pollack and Ernest Hemingway, I think one of the reasons they wind up killing themselves (or drinking themselves to death) is that nobody understands this anymore or tolerates it. But you just are not going to get great artists and thinkers without it. The Editor in Chief of The Atlantic Monthly, Scott Stossel, who suffers mightily with anxiety, and has written a book and several good articles about the subject.

One of the articles from the Atlantic that I got a lot out of (not written by Stossel) is entitled Dandelions and Orchids.  It makes the case that anxious and depressed people are the orchids: They are delicate and unique but with special handling they can really blossom! Orchids are the ones who orchestrate change, are often leaders and think outside the box. The whole rest of the world are the Dandelions. They are tough and resilient and make things happen. Of course we need Dandelions to bring the ideas of creative people into fruition and to keep the world working.

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway attends Suicide Awareness events where she and other attendees wear necklaces for every person in their family that has committed suicide. She and her daughter wear 8 necklaces!!!

Until we go back to the attitudes of Lincoln’s day, creative people are going to go on thinking and living like the person who has asked this very question on Quora. Look at the long description below the actual question. He goes to great length to describe his condition, the difficulties he faces, the great embarrassment it creates and the fact that his family doesn’t seem to understand him. He is a deep thinker! Now notice the question he asks after all that stuff about the problems he faces with anxiety: What are the benefits? That absolutely proves my point. Despite all his troubles with this disorder he’s thinking outside the box and possibly wondering if there could be something good about it?

Even the term “mental illness” is just so stigmatized. If you are physically ill, people come to your aid. If you are mentally ill, you are shunned! Another great mind from the 1800’s, Charles Darwin, was famously anxious and was hospitalized for it on at least one occasion. Here again, it takes a great mind like this to think outside the box and come up with a single scientific theory that is still just as valid today as it was over 100 years ago. There are very, very few scientific theories that go unchallenged for over 100 years!

I personally have spent my life trying to figure out how to live with my anxiety and depression and here is what has worked really well for me, in order of importance:

  1. Exercise vigorously every day.
  2. Practice mindfulness, where you learn how to distance yourself from your own destructive thinking. This is nicely summed up by a bumper sticker I once saw: You don’t have to believe everything you think.
  3. Reduce and preferably eliminate all sources of white sugar and white flour.
  4. Develop a meditation practice where you actually meditate on what my daughter describes as “that hot ball of anxiety” in your gut you wake up with every morning. Don’t think that you can simply ignore it and it will go away.
  5. Practice gratefulness. Make a mental list of 5 things you have to be grateful for every day. Gratefulness is the opposite of anxiety.

Anxiety is both a nature and nurture issue. In other words, anxiety and depression are both genetic and learned. We know this from “cross-fostering” studies in rats  where a baby rat born with a gene for anxiety is taken out of a litter of rats all with the same gene and put in with another litter of rats without that gene. The rat with the gene does better with his anxiety in the new litter (than the ones he left behind) but NOT quite as well as his mates in the new litter, that have no gene for anxiety. So, even though he has a gene for anxiety (nature) how he is raised (nurture) actually changes the “expression” of that gene. And he’s NOT as anxious as he would be if he was still with his biological brothers and sisters in the first litter.

Amazingly, the mother rat in the second litter, with no gene for anxiety, spends much more time licking and grooming her pups than the anxious mother does in the first litter. And her comforting behavior changes the way her foster pup’s genes are expressed. Studies show that meditation and other techniques that elicit the relaxation response,  can also change the expression of genes associated with anxiety in human beings. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, who researches stress and relaxation at Harvard, this change in gene expression starts occurring from the first minute you start meditating or doing deep breathing or practicing any other relaxation technique.

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