Facing Fear & Depression

Facing Fear and Depression
by Art Ticknor

                     
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In his autobiographical A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair described the weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) that were perhaps the most horrific part of his job for ten years as Britain's PM. They're an institution of the British Parliament where the opposition basically tries to humiliate the PM. He wrote in 2010, years after his terms in office (1997-2007):

Even today, wherever I am in the world, I feel a cold chill at 11:57 a.m. on Wednesdays, a sort of prickle on the back of my neck, the thump of the heart. That was the moment I used to be taken from the prime minister's room in the House of Commons through to the Chamber itself. I used to call it the walk from the cell to the place of execution.

Tony Blair How did he deal with it?

I got braver. I realised that in the end I had to confront the demons. It was no use praying more the night before, wearing the right shoes (I wore the same pair of Church's brogues every PMQs for ten years) or just hoping I would get by I decided to analyse it, and try to work out how to do it to the best of my ability.

I remember as a schoolboy doing boxing, which was compulsory. I loathed it; I could never see the point of it nor understand its appeal. In the first fights, I was scared. I didn't want to hit my opponent. I didn't want him to hit me. I just wanted the thing over with. After a time, though, I chose to box properly, to stand my ground and fight. I did it with fear, but also with determination. Either do it properly or refuse to do it at all – that's also fine – but don't do it like a wuss. I didn't like boxing any better, but I respected myself more.

Gradually, I evolved a pattern of working for PMQs. It all started with a determination to be braver, to stand my ground and fight, consciously. Fear as a stimulus, in proper proportion, can keep you on your toes. Fear that tumbles into panic is all bad. In the early days, I wouldn't sleep well the night before or eat at all in the morning. The first thing I realised was the importance of being in the right physical as well as mental condition, so I changed my routine. I took a melatonin pill the night before so I got at least six hours' sleep. I made sure I had a proper breakfast, and just before the ordeal began, I would eat a banana to give myself energy. It seems daft, but I was finding that my energy levels, and thus my mental agility, were dropping after ten minutes. It really made a difference. At 12:28 I was still alive to the risks and up to repelling the assault.

Elizabeth Gilbert Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Love, Pray (subject of the 2010 film of that title starring Julia Roberts), wrote in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage:

Between my romantic entanglements and my professional obsessions [she wrote predominantly for and about men - ed.], I was so absorbed by the subject of maleness that I never spent any time whatsoever contemplating the subject of femaleness. I certainly never spent any time contemplating my own femaleness. For that reason, as well as a general indifference toward my own well-being, I never became very familiar to myself. So when a massive wave of depression finally struck me down around the age of thirty I had no way of understanding or articulating what was happening to me. My body fell apart first, then my marriage, and then – for a terrible and frightening interval – my mind. Masculine flint offered no solace in this situation; the only way out of the emotional tangle was to feel my way through it. Divorced, heartbroken, and lonely, I left everything behind and took off for a year of travel and introspection, intent on scrutinizing myself as closely as I'd once studied the elusive American cowboy.

Panics and depression are emotional tangles. These accounts of how Blair and Gilbert faced their internal demons are instructive of a success formula for doing the same. The mind first has to get to the point of being tired or fed up with its state or with a particular reaction pattern. When that occurs, its decision-making apparatus reacts with determination to contemplate, question, and overcome the debilitating condition. Blair's reaction focused on analysis, Gilbert's on feeling her way through it. Both are based on looking at the mind's operation, including the desire and fear factors moving it, rather than looking away. It's a struggle … but one that pays off when we persevere.


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