​why friendship is so important in managing depression and anxiety

There are friends who exist in your life solely as disembodied, Snapchat filtered heads, and those who will help you through crisis after crisis.

by Nathalie Olah
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21 May 2016, 12:36am

The saying goes that we are free to choose them, though catchment areas and university selection procedures somewhat limit the number of available options. Still, from the relatively infinitesimal number of people we'll meet during our short lives, the liberty to build and nurture a group of friends is very much ours, and I think it's the element of choice that makes it so rewarding. Because unlike parents and siblings who come laden with all kinds of Freudian complexes about our very existence, friendships are entirely of our own making. And finding a friend that is willing to stick around longer than five minutes, is a mark of achievement far greater than any job promotion, house, holiday or Vetements sweaterdress.

Remembering this can be an effective way of staving off negative thoughts. It's something I've come to realise over a period of a year spent trying to learn more about my motivations, some of which were weird beyond words. Disclaimer: friends can't solve your mental health problems any more than they can your physical health problems. But the road to recovery - and maintaining it once you're there - is made a lot easier by them being there. Close friends can be the difference between addressing your problems and not. For that reason, thinking about the way you treat them - and the way they treat you - is a huge aspect of self-improvement and self discovery. Here's what I've learned so far.

Get Real
Never underestimate the power of fingers in friendship. With them you can make food, swim, drive, play Simpsons Cluedo, you name it! Friends who exist in your life solely as disembodied, Snapchat filtered heads should be tempted out into the real world. Spend less time on social media. Employ a strict rule of only interacting on social media with those who you would happily interact with in real life. Understand that the currency of social media is entirely meaningless. The opinion of 800 people you haven't seen since university shouldn't matter. Doesn't matter. Most of them are still pennying and shouting 'down it' at each other - albeit now at weddings. Chances are they'll be doing the same at their funerals in seventy years time. These are not your people. Wear their lack of interest in your life as a badge of honour. If so compelled, post things you think are interesting, and learn to relish the shortage of likes. Only write or share things you believe in, and if venturing into some kind of creative life, seek out those who share enthusiasm for your work. They exist, and the benefit of the internet is that they're a lot easier to track down than you think. Meet them. Go to readings and talks and events. This is a much more effective way of making friends than relying on work bonding days or university selection processes. Have friends outside of work and respect the boundaries between your professional and personal life: eroding them can breed untold confusion. Build communities out of shared interests. If music's your thing, let friends be the Pitchfork you really need. Ask them for recommendations, follow them up and go back to them with more recommendations of your own. This is how I've always approached reading and I am finally reaching the stage where I can confidently say I have my own taste, separate from the maddening consensus dictated by certain factions of the broadsheet media. Whose prescribed standards will only strip you of all individuality and enjoyment. I liked Knight of Cups, despite everything Peter Bradshaw says. That alone is an achievement. Finally, never wander on to the profile of someone you barely know: looking at pictures of them won't reveal anything; hence why the majority of dating apps should be safely avoided by anyone prone to depression or anxious tendencies.

Get Nostalgic
It goes against everything we're told about being present and making plans - which are both critical to achieving happiness and good health - but some retrospection, particularly when it reminds us of the miraculous circumstances that led to us being here can often be a good thing. It's easy to forget, but try to marvel at the sheer improbability of knowing anyone who can make you laugh. If you are still friends with someone you've known since childhood, marvel at that. To all intents and purposes, you shouldn't be. If 15years after playing netball together on a grizzly afternoon you're sat talking at 1am over a bottle of wine about Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian, marvel at that. It's a miracle, and it's yours and you should treasure it.

Ten years ago, a girl I didn't know approached me asking if I was ok. We were outside a pub in East London on a hot evening. I wasn't and it must have shown. I was having the first of many panic attacks that would spill over into a full-blown anxiety disorder. She asked if she could help. I just needed to go home I said. Picking up my bag and making my way towards the bus stop, she stopped me and offered me £20 to get a cab. I was 18 and didn't have the kind of money that I could justify spending on cabs. I politely declined. She insisted and gave me her phone number asking me to pay her back the next day. She hailed the cab for me and watched as I got in. Ten years later and our daily conversations still serve as a reminder to me that the world isn't such a bad place.

What would have happened if we never met? Not much. Maybe a few more drinks and a long time spent feeling sorry for myself, avoiding the outside world for fear of what it would do to my frayed nerves. Instead, I called, returned the money and went for a walk with her on Hampstead Heath. It took another year to calm my nerves completely, but I'll never underestimate the role she played in getting me to that place.

Bad friends, on the other hand, can have untold damage on our mental wellbeing. Broadly speaking, if the ratio of grey to blue in your iMessage history is off, trust your gut instinct. Another good indicator is to ask yourself whether you could tell them anything without risk of being judged. Can they keep a secret? Could they tell you the name of your mum, dog or first boyfriend? More importantly: would they want to?

Get Asking
Ask your friends for help. Not tearful cries for emotional support, but practical, real world help. Continue asking them for help even when you've managed to convince that diplomat with his own apartment and litter of puppies to desist in his search for the perfect woman because lo, she has arrived. Whatever you do, never lose sight of your friends when entering into a relationship and never become dependent on your partner to meet every one of your emotional needs. It's something I've learned the hard way. Ask your friends to come round and help paint your bedroom. Ask them to look after your dog and critique your terrible poetry and cook food when you are sick. Do the same back. Do more back. Love each other actively and remember that asking for help is actually a compliment. Independence is a great feeling and crucial to being in control of your mental faculties, but asking for help doesn't jeopardise that. For years I proudly stood on my own two feet, refusing help and not realising that in the process I was sending out a message that my friends were somehow incapable or useless to me. Which is far from true. All the while chastising myself for any sign of apparent weakness and driving myself slowly crazy as a result. You are independent and you are doing well, but we all need help and the majority of us also want to give it. 

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Text Nathalie Olah

Tagged:
depression
anxiety
friendship
mental health week
Nathalie Olah