For some of us, depression comes with fear. A deeply-rooted, vague, undefined, continuous, horrifying feeling of fear. Your psychiatrist will probably label this as “depression-related anxiety”, but in fact it can be much worse than this bland term suggests.
Such intense fear can lead to two primary, very basic kinds of reaction: either panic, the impulse to flee; or paralysis, the impulse to freeze.
To take a closer look at this fear, first I want to take you for a walk in the woods. I like hiking through the forest – although sometimes I’m too lazy or too depressed to actually go out for that healthy walk. But a track in the woods offers so much to see and hear and smell and feel. An unexpected flower or mushroom, a bird tweeting high up, a sudden ray of light through the leaves, a shrub with a penetrating better-not-touch-me smell, a glimpse of was-that-a-squirrel? and the soft bouncy crunch of twigs and dead leaves under your feet. In comparison, a walk through open fields can seem more dull and monotonous.
On the other hand, walking through an open field can make me feel somewhat more at ease, more relaxed, than walking through the woods. As a small human between all those huge imposing tree trunks, you cannot always see far ahead: in the woods I tend to feel a little more enclosed, a little more in danger of getting trapped somehow, or of losing my orientation, losing my way between all those trees.
I think I recognize a bit of that enclosed feeling in some semi-abstract, minimalist drawings my daughter Sophie made for her gallery at deviantART. I like them very much, and not just because she’s my daughter. Here is number 4 from her series “Between the Trees”. Apart from the enclosure, note that the figure at the bottom may be some kind of dragon. One of those lurking threats that might make us afraid.
Fear is an essential instrument of survival, and has always been. When looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon into the sheer depth, fear is what keeps you from taking unnecessary risks, from getting too dangerously close. Even though the park management was kind enough to provide us with a solid railing, there at the edge you may still feel some of that original fear.
We share this primordial, direct, instinctive mechanism of fear with most animals. On a basic level, we may say that it is not just us feeling such instinctive fear: in many cases, it is produced by a residual Ape that is still living on, deep down in the secret cellars of our brain.
What I mean to say here is that over the ages, this fear mechanism has become almost hard-wired inside our head. To get back to the woods: many thousands of years ago, in the Pleistocene when our primitive ancestors roamed the world, they had to share that world with dangerous creatures such as Sabre-Tooth Tigers. Our hunting ancestors had to be alert all the time, because a lethal Sabre-Tooth Tiger might lurk behind any tree, waiting for them.
We all know that Sabre-Tooth Tigers have gone extinct about 10,000 years ago. But in a more general way, a remnant of our ancestor’s fears still lives on within us. On a sometimes irrational, mostly subconscious level. And I think that when I am wandering somewhere in the woods, surrounded by trees, unable to see right away what’s behind them, it may be a small residue of that ancient fear that still can make me slightly on my guard. On that subconscious level, we still don’t entirely rule out the possibility of some Sabre-Tooth Tiger jumping out at us.
I am lucky, for I can say that for me such latent irrational fears are so slight that most of the time I don’t feel them at all. Sometimes, like when I’m out in the woods, there is indeed that small, vague hint of uneasiness – but often not even that, and it never really bothers me.
For some of us however, depression will wake up that irrational, nervous Ape that as a leftover from ancient times lies dormant deep down in our head. For some of us, depression may trigger and amplify this kind of subconscious fears. At times it can make you feel terribly afraid, without a clear reason, without being able to point at what exactly it is you’re so afraid of. This can lead to two different kinds of depression behavior, depending from one of the two main reaction modes I mentioned above.
Nervous depression: your subconscious fears make you panicky. Deep down you are haunted by the urge to fly, to run away. The fact that you don’t really know what it is you’re so afraid of, makes things only worse: for you have no idea how or in what direction you should actually run. Still, you feel the need to flee or else to defend yourself somehow. In your panic, you may start thrashing about like a trapped warrior: resulting in impulsive, wild, unfocused, destructive actions.
The other reaction mode is lethargic depression: your subconscious fears paralyze you. You freeze like a Stone-Age hunter who, faced with a Sabre-Tooth Tiger, stands stock-still in the hope that when not moving at all, he will not be noticed by the tiger. You want to hide from the unknown source of your fear: you want to be invisible. This urge leaves you nearly incapable of doing anything anymore. Except, perhaps, going back to bed and pulling the blanket over your head. Unfortunately, even that will not work – your blanket is not Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. You took your fear along underneath it.
The very worst kind of such depression-related fears is when, without fully realizing what it is that makes you so afraid, it actually is yourself you’re so afraid of. When in fact you’re afraid of a Sabre-Toothed Depression Tiger that roams through your own thoughts, wanting to end it all, wanting to kill you. In other words, when it is the threat of your own suicidal, self-destructive feelings that again and again fuels the flames of your fear.
What to do? Every time you begin to feel so very afraid, when your daily environment begins to look like a dark forest full of lurking Sabre-Tooth Tigers, there are two things you can try (apart from seeking professional help, of course).
One: try to do something. Watching TV, playing a game. If concentrating on simple visible things doesn’t help, you might try to go somewhere else for a few hours, until your panic or fear begins to fade a little. Find a different place nearby (for example the room of a friend) where you are welcome and where perhaps you can feel less surrounded by those trees and their menacing shadows.
Two, and most important: don’t keep wandering alone through those woods. So if you are alone, and maybe even too afraid to go outside, phone a friend or someone else. Ask them to come along as soon as they can. Even if they can do little more than holding your hand for a while, this may help guide you back to a less acutely frightened state: to feeling a little more safe again.
• tip: If you weren’t so full of fear, you would see it makes no sense to keep fleeing or hiding from imaginary Sabre-Tooth Tigers (or to try frantically hitting at them).
When you are overwhelmed by huge, vague, irrational, indeterminable but intense waves of fear, the best short-term thing you can do is to make sure someone will be there right there with you. To hold your hand. Phone someone: a friend, a neighbor. Just ask someone to come to you.
For the longer term, keep in mind that such terrible waves of fear might return, and therefore seek professional help. A good psychiatrist should be able to help you to understand and to tame that primitive, irrational fear.
Author: Henk van Setten