Forgetting to be afraid

By my bed sits a very old crumpled post-it note that says ‘Fforgetting to be afraid’. It’s crumpled,misspelt and stuck to a piece of cardboard in an attempt at lamination so doesn’t look ‘all that’. But this piece of paper has been something that has helped me over the past few years whenever I feel anxious. I’m not sure where I read this phrase but it resonated with me and it has helped me through some tough times. I had written another piece to put up this week – but I spent a lot of this past week feeling afraid (I started a new job) and this seemed more apt.

Fear can be one of the main – and most crippling – components of depression and anxiety. The world is a terrifying place when you are depressed and/or anxious. (Sometimes the two can exist side by side; sort-of the worst 2 for 1 offer the world has ever seen!) The obvious response to this is to hide or run away from that fear and shut yourself off from the world in an attempt to feel safe. We have all done that – taken refuge at home where we feel protected. And frankly, who could blame anyone for doing so? The body has a physiological reaction to perceived threat called the ‘fight-or-flight response’. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and produces a heady mix of hormones to protect itself. These hormones helped our predecessors to fight off predators or gave them the energy to run away. The sick feeling you get when you feel panicked is the adrenaline rushing to your muscles to give you the energy you need to deal with this perceived threat. Unfortunately if you are anxious this response may end up being triggered quite a lot, and this is a problem for your physical well being. You really don’t need all those hormones pulsing through your system on a daily basis! So hiding away from the world and all its threats can seem like the easier option: depression makes you want to isolate yourself.

That’s what I did for years – shut myself away from the world. I hid at home, and while I felt safe, I didn’t feel better. I only saw a few people: those friends who were kind and loving enough to come and sit beside me on the couch and watch crap telly with me, or who would patiently take me out for a cup of tea and then take me home again afterwards (sort of like taking your granny out for a little day trip). I’m lucky I have incredible friends but I also pushed a lot of people away during this time – there is only so much people can take and sometimes friendships and relationships are  a casualty of severe depression. The problem with hiding away and waiting to feel better is that it really doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the world isn’t going to come knocking on your front door and ask if you can come out to play. Selfish of the world, I know! So instead you have to force yourself out that door, one step at a time, and make yourself do things that you really don’t want to do. It really can help: not immediately, and not everything will have that effect, but you may find something that lifts your mood and makes you happy, if only for a fleeting moment.

Here’s an example to illustrate my point: I have recently taken up running  and have found it to be incredibly therapeutic. Now I am not a sporty girl; I love watching sports but organised team activities fill me with dread. The only bad memories I have from secondary school are of being forced to play hockey (or even worse, basketball) with all the cool girls in my class. The memory makes me shudder even now. For years people have told me I should try exercise to alleviate my anxiety and to be honest, while I know these people meant well, I really just wanted to punch them in the face: I was sure running was not going to help me!

And yet, really annoyingly, it turns out it does. Those endorphins (or endolphins as I like to call them) that running produces really do make you feel good! My fear of running was that people would laugh at me, or that I would injure myself. I have injured myself and people have laughed at me (I ran into a tree branch… fair enough) but the world hasn’t ended and I’m going to go running again today after I finish writing this. Taking those small steps and forcing yourself to do little things that scare you everyday is one of the ways you can walk your way out of the prison that depression has locked you in.

Those steps can be something as simple as leaving the house today and walking to the shop for a paper, or picking up the phone and phoning a friend. Reach out to people, and you will be surprised how happy they will be to hear from you. Another thing I have always found to be beneficial is helping others – this really does force you outside your own head for a while. A huge part of recovering from severe depression is taking back control from the illness and learning how to help yourself. Medication and a good support system will all help but the day you feel strong enough to fight back and learn how to help yourself is the day your real recovery begins: that’s one way you can learn to manage your illness and live with it. You are not alone and maybe reaching out to others is the step you could make today. There is a lot of support out there and having contact with others will help you to make those steps. Isolation is not conducive to happiness.

Happiness is probably a concept for another day and another piece of writing, but it does exist! I never found it sitting at home looking at the same four walls but I have found it by engaging with the outside world. Not all the time, I don’t think anybody feels happy all the time, but there are moments when I stop and genuinely feel happy. Not anxious, or scared, or depressed but real happiness. Joy at being alive and being here to appreciate what this crazy world has to offer. That joy might only happen occasionally and it’s often the small things that make me feel this way but it’s worth it. So push through the fear and try something new today and I promise you it will be worth it.

Forgetting to be afraid is the best decision I have ever made.