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.
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.
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?