On the Other Side of Fear

Barbed wire strand

Fear has a way of setting boundaries that can’t be crossed. If you do cross them, you know you’ll pay a price – a pain or terror you can’t endure. The boundary is protection. Inside it, you’re safe.

I think of the anxiety I feel when moving through depression as the warning sign. You’re getting too close. Watch out. Ahead there’s panic and the touch of that terrible thing you can’t handle.

When I’m feeling well, anxiety is a warm-up for getting something done. It’s difficult, I’m afraid it won’t turn out well. But the anxiety is energy on the loose that I’m about to channel into my purpose. Once begun, the task at hand takes over my attention, and the anxiety disappears.

Fear Inside

I used to feel a rising panic every time I tried to sit at my desk to write anything that engaged deep emotion. I felt I was pushing across one of those boundaries that marked a zone of safety. On the other side was a force or power I couldn’t face. I didn’t know what it was, only that it was buried deep inside and dangerous to release.

After hundreds of failed attempts to get through, a therapist helped me find a way that eventually worked. The idea seemed simple enough. Recall an incident when I’d been able to manage another crossing and think of that each time I tried to write.

Healing Memory

I had just such an incident vividly in mind. Years before, I had felt a deep healing by the simple act of stepping through the cold water of a tiny wilderness creek.

Focusing on that moment helped me get through near panic so that I could begin to get words on paper. But this was no miraculous or immediate change. There was halting progress that took more than a year.

You hear a lot of facile talk about facing your fears. But if the fear runs deep and follows depression around with you, facing it means turning yourself inside out. More often than not, techniques based in memories and metaphors don’t get you very far. I had tried that approach many times before a therapist’s guidance helped me along.


I recently discovered a TV series from a few years ago that captures the difficulty of confronting an overwhelming fear and ending its dominance. Called Obsessed, each episode profiles two people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and shows excerpts of their live sessions with cognitive behavioral therapists.

I don’t have OCD, but from what I’ve learned the compulsive behaviors it causes are barriers against an intense fear. That’s what I can relate to closely, though the level of fear pervading every moment of an OCD day is beyond my experience.

Repeating certain actions over and over, obsessing about cleanliness or avoiding triggering situations or people are matters of survival. These behaviors stave off some dreaded encounter that must be avoided at all costs.

One woman whose story is told in this series had lived through several traumatic events in the recent past. The worst of these had been the death of her father in a terrible freeway accident.

She kept the torn and bloodied clothing he’d been wearing at his death and periodically has to put on the shredded garments. She also has intense anxiety while driving and could never take the freeway, especially in the area of her father’s accident.

These are only the most powerful of many compulsive behaviors that have completely disrupted her life. She hates how she has to live. After trying other methods, she turns to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The therapist teaches her cognitive skills to cope with her thought patterns, but focuses primarily on changing her behavior through direct exposure to what she fears most.

This is gut-wrenching stuff to watch as she endures intense anxiety and panic while managing to stay with the treatment. The therapist works with her to confront smaller problems first, but inevitably she has to confront her worst fear and drive on the freeway where her father died.

She tries one excuse after another to put it off, but the therapist is adamant. He knows she’s ready to do it, even though she thinks she can’t.

And the therapist is right. She endures the agony of driving in heavy traffic and then passes the spot where her father’s car crashed. The growing anxiety peaks and then subsides. She has pushed right through her worst nightmare and is amazed that she’s done it.

This is not a simple story of miraculous recovery in a few weeks. The program condenses a lot of time into the brief span of a film, but she’s begun to get her life back. She marks the final step in treatment when the therapist stands with her as she burns her father’s clothing.

A Therapist’s Guidance

Extreme anxiety and severe depression have gone hand in hand for me, and I’ve found a similar path in trying to deal with them. Cognitive techniques and mindfulness meditation have helped me get a little detachment, at least intellectually.

They’ve given me a few mental tools to use at the first sign of trouble. But then I’ve had to do the almost unbearable work of changing behavior.

I would not have been able to do that without the help of therapists. It’s hard to imagine getting through all the setbacks without that trained support.

Has some form of serious anxiety or fear-related disorder accompanied your depression? What has your experience been like in trying to deal with it?

Image by jonycunha at Flickr

21 Responses to “On the Other Side of Fear”

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  1. Caroline says:

    I have an extreme fear of recovery.. My depression throws up different things and simiallry hides behind different thoughts or responses.. I feel I can never get to the root cause..I have had depression since being a child.. And probably had dysthymia.. So a low level grade depression for me, when things aren’t really tough.. This current episode leave me feeling suicidal often.. As I feel its something I can’t ‘win’ or recover from.. Intrusive thoughts have always been a problem for me also… They give me such a fear and panicked response..

  2. Donna says:

    The Great Pandemic has covered a great amount of unfamiliar territory. Buzzing along with all the normal daily problems (which were bad enough), triggers, moods, successes, goal-tending, and pursuits of happiness — then down comes the hammer. Deadly disease, financial amputation, excruciating loneliness, and the Great Unknown. What’s going to happen next? Even with two doses of vaccine in me now, I feel I need a different kind of fortification. A vaccine that would enable my body to fight off the urge to escape. Because I have always been in flight when it comes to “Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.” I fear, I fly. And a pandemic is no different.

    It’s what I was taught to do as a child: take your sister and hide. Don’t make any noise. Don’t come out till I tell you it’s safe. Just go. NOW. And I did. If you are afraid of someone, run, hide and stay perfectly quiet. And while you’re at it, hide your little sister and make sure she’s quiet, too. You know how hard it is for a young child to keep a younger sibling quiet and still and hidden? That sister and I don’t even talk anymore. It’s like all that trauma still comes between us. Maybe she associates me with the fear, danger, neglect. Her solution, though, is to avoid abandonment at all costs. Her greatest fear is being alone. She stalks the men she must have, she breaks the law to give herself the advantage in these situations, she deafens herself to any talk of caution, and in the process she is abandoned by those who can’t tolerate the emotional toll. So, in the end she is left alone (her worst fear) because of the methods she uses to ensure attachment.

    The oddest part, though, is when I used to bring up the subject of childhood fear and trauma, she had no idea what I was talking about! She remembered the same situations but denied they EVER had any emotional impact on her.

    All this to say, there is no accounting for individual responses to fear and anxiety. Detachment; attachment. Run away; run toward. Hide; expose.

    But in this Not-So-Great Pandemic at least I have found plenty of time to think things out. I figured out I have filtered my whole life through that little tiny sieve of fear. There is so much junk cluttering up that sieve now that all that can trickle through is depression and numbness and panic. And now, the Great Irony: fear of an unknown and deadly disease has driven the whole world to run, hide, and take your loved ones with you if you can…and by the way whether you are screaming or silent it doesn’t matter because everyone in the world is screaming or silent and it hasn’t kept anyone any safer.

    And I have learned an important lesson: running and hiding and cowering to the point where I have no voice in my own life? It has not made me any safer. It has, instead, led to nonproductive perfectionism, suicide attempts, led me to financial ruin, led me to a bed of loneliness and obsessive hypervigilance. Like my sister’s determination to avoid abandonment at all costs has led her to lifelong suffering and the inevitable all-embracing realization that she has done nothing but ensure more abandonment. Reminds me of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” one of my favorite horror stories.

    Sorry I have run on and on here…but all this to say that the COVID-19 pandemic, for all its graceless invasion and changing face of terror and pitiless trail of corpses — it has given me a quiet place for self-reflection. The forced crossing into a world of fear has also been a private crossing into new understanding of myself and others, and for myself an opportunity to slow down the hamster wheel of busy-ness I have used as a distraction. Moment by moment, I am better able to lay down fear and take up just being present in a moment of gratefulness that I am alive. I have another chance to learn how to take chances.

    • Denise says:

      Donna…. this was beautiful. Not in the way you think but that you have reflected and stared your fears in the face. You see the costs to your life upfront and in color. You are courageous and strong. These words will give others hope for themselves to look at their fears and challenge them. God bless you and thank you for posting here.

      • Donna says:

        Thank you. My urge is still to run when I stare fear in the face. Because it has defeated me so many times. If I added up my badges of courage they would seem laughable compared to the number of times I have been a coward. But EVERY SINGLE VICTORY, EVERY STEP MADE WITH COURAGE is something I celebrate unabashedly. And as you probably know, depression gives us so many chances to be brave. The only way I make it through many days alive is taking out those badges of courage again to remind me I CAN do it. The way I fight stigma is to mentally stand up on that olympic platform and give myself another gold medal. And I remember how hard I have fought to get there, how much effort it has taken. I am competitive enough that this works for me. You have to find what works for you. And that’s why you care enough to read John Folk-Williams blog posts and comments, and why you are kind enough to compliment me in a tangible way. These help you in your own fight.

  3. Hello John,

    I enjoyed your post and your sensitive writing. I have a video with breathing techniques which works soooo well for anxiety if your readers would like to practice it, at http://livelife2themax.com.au/depression/breathingtechnique/

    I would really encourage people with anxiety, fears, phobias to seek out someone who is experienced with NLP and particularly Timeline techniques, for consultations, as these methods are sooooo much faster than CBT and flooding or exposure therapy, literally a couple of sessions versus months.

    I am not an advocate of asking people to follow the anxiety or trauma trail, as to me you are reliving the emotions and learning how to do them over and over again so you reinforce your learned responses and they become very easy habitual patterns.

    If a child is upset, do we ask what’s wrong? Yes. Then do we ask what was wrong before that? No. Do we ask what was wrong before that and before that? No. Why not? Because you would be re-traumatising the child through re-experiencing every event. If the child doesn’t know what caused them to be upset then offering suggestions is akin to implanting suggestions, that may have no bearing. Children learn to behave and repeat their behaviour because that’s what they have learnt. I see no benefit in doing that with my clients, or you doing that to yourself.

    Why not offer help to move forward: focus on big deep breaths, teach effective breathing techniques, focus on Mindfulness in the moment where you observe what is outside of you, rather than inside, focus on reducing the size of the images you are recalling and moving them away from you, are all easy and helpful ways to manage anxiety.

    (EMDR is different to the follow the emotional trail approach as you are engaging your mind and learning to relax while revisiting the past event.)

    Warmly, Narelle

  4. Hi John,

    Thank you in turn for your reply and interest.
    Yes, “intuitively” is just the word…. .
    In the way I was trained to attend to the anxiety/trauma locked in the body we follow the tension and aim to go back to the earliest memories of this anxiety occurring. It is a powerful yet very gentle and loving way of working. I guess these days more people are into EMDR (which I do rate as well), but I like the way this is very holistic and helps to find meaning as well.
    Thank you again, and please keep this inspiring blog going.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Madeleine –

      I wish I had had a therapist of your sensitivity when I was a whole lot younger. EMDR is hard for me to understand – I guess no one really knows why it can work. But I’m for anything that brings you back in touch with events and feelings that have shaped your life. I assume that, if successful, EMDR would be followed by therapy to probe more deeply.


  5. Hi John,

    Yes, I also found this a very good post. Anxiety is so crippling (and indeed one of the main factors on the better depression scales)… .
    Changing our thinking and then behaviour is very important and mindfulness is very helpful, but often anxiety and trauma can be “stored” deeply in the body and needs to be addressed on a deeper level.
    Last, but not least, may I say I am very impressed with noch’s positive outlook.
    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Madeleine –

      It’s encouraging to hear about your approach. The interaction among mind, behavior and body is intuitively clear to me, but I haven’t ever worked with a therapist who integrated them effectively. Thanks for bringing this out – and thanks for your kind words about the post.


  6. I really appreciate you sharing this good and thoughtful information! This is a difficult subject.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      Thanks for your comment – living with fear is one of the hardest things I know.


  7. master blogger says:

    In order to conquer fear we must do repeatedly what we are afraid to do and see how fear fears you, this is a wonderful post I love it1

    Zero Dramas

  8. noch says:

    i developed anxiety attacks and fear with my depression. i was never scared of heights, geckos never bothered me, and being in the dark alone was nothing to be afraid of. yet in the last 2 years, i get anxiety attacks when i’m in a place with too many people, an irrational fear and i can’t breathe. i am worried i will fall down when i look down from the building window (when i’m not thinking i should jump), i am scared i will fall off the cable car, i am afraid that the geckos will fall on me, and i can’t sleep alone without the lights on. its bad. but it’s getting better. and my therapist is also helping me desensitize from things like geckos and stop my wory using CBT…
    i reckon, if i’m not dead after trying to kill myself a few times, i might as well try to deal with myself…

    • Hi Noch,


      • John Folk-Williams says:

        Hi, Narelle –

        I’ve had to remove your comment to NochNoch since it crosses a boundary set for this blog regarding professional therapeutic advice. Disclaimers here make clear that Storied Mind isn’t intended as therapy. Anyone who is interested in online consultation can contact you directly. Readers here share personal stories and ideas to seek advice from others in similar circumstances or to offer advice based on their own experience with depression. They have to consult with mental health providers through other channels. I welcome your comments, provided they observe this limitation.


        • Noch Noch says:

          Hi John, Narelle

          Thanks for both your messages / replies. I appreciate that and understand why one of them was deleted. Hope to share other stories with you both on this blog again 🙂

          Noch NOch

          • Hi John,

            My apologies for crossing this boundary, I have to admit I hadn’t thought about that and don’t recall reading the boundary or I would certainly have respected it.

          • John Folk-Williams says:

            Hi, Narelle –

            That’s OK – I realize I need to make the disclaimer clearer, and I’m preparing a terms & conditions page to do that.

            Thanks for your understanding.


  9. Jenna says:

    Thank you for shedding light on the fact that anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Your blog is helping many.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Jenna –

      I’m glad you’ve found the post helpful.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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