​how to allow your friendships to help you manage 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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20 May 2016, 2:35pm

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 (as in, real life)

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. 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 opinions of 800 people you haven't seen since school shouldn't matter. They don't matter. These are not your people. Seek out people who share your passions. 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. Ask them for recommendations, follow them up and go back to them with more recommendations of your own. That alone is an achievement.

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 it's important to cherish the friendships that have stood the test of time. If 15 years 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.

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.

Tagged:
depression
anxiety
friendship
mental health week