A friend of mine used to be terrified of losing people he loved. He would sometimes feel crippled with depression and anxiety about things that hadn’t happened. He’d spend hours imagining the worst case scenarios, especially his fiancée getting cancer. No one close to him had ever had cancer and his fiancée was the picture of good health, yet these intrusive, compulsive fear thoughts became overwhelming. After a few years of therapy and medication he was able to develop some strong cognitive and behavioral skills that helped a lot and he resumed med school without too much disruption.
Then his fiancée was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer that is difficult to treat.
Fast forward a few months. I met him for lunch the other day and he was happier than I’ve ever seen him. He wasn’t struggling with anxiety and he wasn’t depressed. He was focusing on current joyful stuff and positive future possibilities. He felt an internal strength that was new to him. Nothing outside of him had changed – his fiancée’s health hadn’t significantly improved and he hadn’t increased or changed his meds. Years of anticipatory anxiety and resulting depression had been shucked when the worst thing happened. This surprised him but it makes perfect sense. Anticipatory anxiety has no limits and no end until we impose them ourselves, which can be very hard to do after years of training yourself to think that way and you have no proof that you could handle something horrible. Event anxiety is a different creature because you’re forced to handle the crisis right then and usually you see pretty quickly that you aren’t powerless – you can change what you can and accept what you can’t. You see that you have more skills and resources and strength than you knew. It can be hard to have blind faith in your own resilience before it’s tested but once you believe it’s within you life is a lot less scary.