Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Overcoming the Fear of Depression Relapse

Even on good days I'm nervous. I worry that the monster that is my depression is lurking around every corner of my happiness, just waiting to rear its ugly head. I wonder if things are too good, and if it is only a matter of time before things turn dark and stormy again. I live life in a constant state of low-dose anxiety, conscious that the rose-colored glasses that I am wearing can quickly take on a gray and dismal tint. That is the way many of us who have experienced a truly devastating episode of depression feel.

I discussed this fear with my psychiatrist and was relieved to find that my worst fears were unfounded. I asked her if my latest episode, which had been by far my worst and longest bout with depression, had permanently altered my brain chemistry. I asked, genuinely concerned, if I would ever be the person I was before this most recent descent into the abyss. What she told me surprised me and also gave me comfort. And I must admit; I'm not as afraid as I was.

Experiencing a major episode of depression is a traumatic experience, for the person with the depression, as well as the family members around them. It takes an emotional toll on everyone and leaves scars on the relationships and family dynamic. But the key word here is traumatic. What most people don't realize when they finally crawl out of the hole of depression into the light of day is that they have suffered an extremely traumatic event. And the ensuing feelings of anxiety, worry and fear are normal and expected for someone who has experienced a trauma. They are symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

When my psychiatrist first told me this I was in a state of denial. Aside from my bipolar 2 and depressive symptoms, the last thing I wanted was another label. But when we started dissecting the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, I realized that they described my emotions perfectly. What I have learned is that although I am fearful of experiencing that type of trauma again, I am able to overcome those feelings by focusing on the present moment. I do not know what tomorrow will hold, but I know that today I am not depressed. I cannot say if I will open my eyes in the morning and things will be cast in a shadow of dread, but they do not as I sit and look at them right now.

Worrying about relapse is very common, but should not hinder recovery. If you are feeling those same feelings of fear and anxiety, don't berate yourself. Recognize them, accept them for what they are, non judgmentally, and then release them. Remember that you are not your emotions; they exist separately from you and only have the power to control you if you let them. One sign of recovery from depression is being able to distinguish between an emotion and a mood. A mood is something that you are in; it consumes you and determines your outlook, demeanor and functionality. An emotion is something you have, and is only expressed in the actions that you choose to take as a result of the emotion.

If you suffer from post-traumatic stress from a depressive episode, work with a therapist or counselor to learn techniques to cope with those feelings. Remember that you are okay today and celebrate how far you have come. And if you do relapse, do not give up all hope. If you've already recovered from a major depressive episode once, you can and will do it again.

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