The best cure for anxiety….Death

I‘ve come across an ‘anxiety blog’ by Robert Leahy, who’s one of the more famous cognitive therapists working in the US, and the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York.

The blog, which is hosted by the magazine Psychology Today, requires him to write a post about anxiety every week, which is enough to turn anyone into a nervous wreck.

One post that caught my eye was called How Big A Problem is Anxiety? Very big, says Leahy:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s. We are getting more anxious every decade. Psychologists have speculated about the possible reasons for this increase in both anxiety and depression over the last fifty years. Some of the reasons may be a decrease in “social connectedness”—we tend to move more, change jobs, participate less in civic organizations, and we are less likely to participate in religious communities. People are far less likely to get married, more likely to delay getting married, and more likely to live alone. All of these factors can contribute to worry, uncertainty, anxiety and depression.

And our expectations have changed in the last fifty years. We expect to have a more affluent life-style, we are driven by unrealistic ideas of what we need (“I need the latest ipod!!”), and we have unrealistic ideas about relationships and appearance. In the 1950’s sociologists would write about “The Organization Man” who worked for the corporation for his or her entire career. Today many people would love to have a job that had that kind of stability. And our expectations about retirement also lead us to feel anxious. We now have to rely on our own savings—rather than a company pension plan—to help us survive during retirement.

Speculations about whether we have become more anxious, or why, are always slightly general and untestable. We may say we’re more anxious, or depressed, simply because our culture is now able to talk about these feelings and give them names more easily.

Anxiety is a part of being human – it’s just that, 100,000 years ago, the anxiety would have been about whether a tiger would eat us, or whether we’d survive the winter. Now, we no longer live under the daily threat of violent death or sickness. But you can’t just turn off our evolutionarily developed capacity for worry, so it has to find new things to worry about – what our workmates think of us, will we find a life partner, is our nose too big, are we too fat.

Sometimes these modern anxieties seem incredibly petty compared to old-school anxieties about death and starvation. But anxiety is rarely completely irrational. What our workmates think of us does matter, and will affect how we do in our career. If we’re too fat, it might affect our ability to find a nice life partner.

Of course, anxiety is very often self-defeating: we worry excessively about what our workmates think of us, and our insecurity communicates itself to them, and they think less well of us. Sometimes, in modern life, the least anxious seem to thrive the best.

The ancient world, and the Renaissance, had a good method of dealing with anxiety, which I find still works – the memento mori, or reminder of Death. Ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics, would train themselves to consider Death , to consider how everything around them would turn to dust, how they themselves would soon be eaten by the worms, and forgotten by everyone on earth.

Asian philosophers, particularly the Buddhists and Hindus, also trained themselves to contemplate Death, even going to meditate in charnel houses, surrounded by skeletons and corpses. The Christian Medieval Church was one big memento mori – its art works were overflowing with grinning skulls and dancing skeletons, showing the supremacy of Lord Death over all human pretensions.

And Renaissance artists, inspired by ancient philosophy, revitalized this sombre tradition – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, is in some ways an extended memento mori, and other artists and writers like Holbein and Montaigne were equally ready to remind themselves of Death and bring it before their eyes.

Somehow this tradition was lost, probably around the eighteenth century, the century of politeness, urbanity and materialism, when it started to seem barbaric, morbid, even fanatical to focus on Death. The emphasis becomes much more on man’s ability to control nature, to achieve his wishes, to cheat Death. Death became merely death, a minor embarrassment in the cocktail party of life.

But I don’t think the ancient tradition of the memento mori was necessarily morbid. It was a way of turning down the volume on modern anxieties. By reminding yourself that you would die very soon, you learned to detach yourself from worldly anxieties, from all the petty striving after reputation or status. It was a way of achieving release, liberation, peace.

I remember when I had social anxiety at university, and was really anxious alot of the time, I one day had an epiphany that we would all die. I was sitting in my room, and I suddenly saw that everything in it would turn to dust, that the entire town would crumble and disappear, that I myself would be dead and buried within a few years, and the universe would not have been significantly altered. For some reason, I found this amazingly liberating. Why was I worrying what such-and-such thought of me…what did it matter how my finals went…why did we cling on to worldly things, when they were turning to dust in our fingers? Why do we torture ourselves worrying about our place in the world, when we are only here for a few, brief and insignificant moments?

Later on, when I found myself getting anxious again, I found that reminding myself of Death helped me achieve detachment and perspective on my problems. I couldn’t take myself, my career, my love-life or whatever else I was worrying about that seriously, knowing I would be dead in a few weeks, months or years. What was the point? I had no idea why I was alive, but I knew I was going to die soon, in a few decades at most, so I might as well relax, try to enjoy life, and maybe try and help others as well.

So I really think reminding myself of Death helped me to overcome anxiety. The ancient technique still works, that’s why we have passed it down to modern times. And I think our modern society, so obsessed with itself, its own glamour and importance, would do well to remind itself occasionally of the grinning skull beneath all the make-up.

Here’s one of the few memento moris from popular culture, The Flaming Lips’ song, Do You Realize:



  • Olly says:


    I think for a change I don’t agree with you. You wrote:

    “Anxiety is a part of being human – it’s just that, 100,000 years ago, the anxiety would have been about whether a tiger would eat us, or whether we’d survive the winter. Now, we no longer live under the daily threat of violent death or sickness. But you can’t just turn off our evolutionarily developed capacity for worry, so it has to find new things to worry about – what our workmates think of us, will we find a life partner, is our nose too big, are we too fat.”

    I don’t think so. I think that anxiety is free-floating fear; what happens when fear is present but has no object. It may imagine future objects, of float between objects and ideas, but fundamentally it is imaginary. A caveman and a tiger is concrete fear. When we have concrete fears we don’t tend to be anxious. The nomads I met in Mongolia had nots of potential fears but no anxiety. Why not? I aliken anxiety to allergy. Allergies proliferate in an environment where the immune system doesn’t get properly tested, so it over-reacts to innocuous minor pathogens or faintly noxious stimuli. Anxiety is the same; it is the out-of-proportion reaction of living in a crushingly benign environment and never having been properly exposed to death (to link back to your original article) or real threat or attack or concrete fear. People go on fairground rides to get a dose of proper fear, so that their anxiety is alleviated! So my rather controversial suggestion for the anxiety of our age is getting kids and adolescents in an environment where fear, a most excellent emotion, can be used properly. Maybe a survival course, or taking up some sort of combat or martial arts. Once it is in proper use, the free-floating stuff tends to disappear. This links back to stoic notions of good character building harsh environments!

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hey Olly,

    Hmmm…it depends.

    Generalized anxiety disorder is often defined as just the sort of ‘free-floating anxiety’ that you talk about, without a specific object.

    I haven’t studied that condition, so can’t comment on it.

    But certainly other forms of anxiety disorders have very specific objects and concerns.

    A person with social anxiety is anxious about what others think of them. In other areas of life, they may not be anxious at all.

    People who are claustrophobic are anxious in certain situations, while in other situations, they may be as brave as lions.

    These conditions are both imaginary – rooted in the imagination – but also have objects. The objects change all the time. The anxious person thinks ‘what if this tube tunnel collapses’ or ‘what if I have a panic attack during this meeting’, and then imagines that happening, and starts to panic.

    The more specifically you can define what exactly is causing someone’s anxiety, what thoughts, what beliefs, the more specifically you can help them. That’s certainly been my experience.

    All through university, I had rather intellectual and vague explanations for my feelings of angst and unease. When I finally worked out that, banal as it sounds, I was afraid of losing the approval of others, then I started being able to challenge the beliefs behind that fear (‘I am only worthwhile if others approve of me’) and start to get better.

    But I agree with your broader point, about needing to find something to worry about because our environment is ‘crushingly benign’, which is well-put. I was making a similar point.

    And I agree with the idea of sending young people off on survival trips etc, which is actually what the Goolang School in Australia, which has the most advanced well-being centre of any school, is famous for.

    Cheers mate,


  • munty13 says:

    I suffered with an anxiety disorder for a long time. I used to believe it was because of my childhood. I understand now that it was perhaps part of a rabid, and fervent imagination. My imagination made the world a very black place.

    I think anxiety is a cause of having no inner security. Sure, we can blame it on relationships, careers, marrying too late…. but no matter where we think the problem is, the anxiety will always be there. The anxiety will always simmer away on a pan at the back of the brain.

    Perhaps anxiety is not a problem in the mind. Maybe anxiety arises from the body. There’s something profound in the idea that the mind can imagine the body dying.

    Flaming lips – tunnnnnnnnnnnne.

  • A DiClementi says:

    Stress and some unpleasent experiences may lead to anxiety. Some natural anxiety remedies to look into are St.John's Wort, SAMe, L-Theanine, and Tryptophan. There's also cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and programs like Panic Away and The Linden Method, to name a few. Hope this helps!

  • Juan says:

    I liked this:
    Maybe a survival course, or
    taking up some sort of combat
    or martial arts. Once it is in
    proper use, the free-floating
    stuff tends to disappear.

  • Juan says:

    Maybe wars and paranoua are popular because they give an object an action to use our anxiety.

  • Al says:

    I agree that reminding ourselves of life’s finiteness can eleviate some forms of anxiety. I also like Rollo May’s take on “normal anxiety”, something that I think has been treated as “abnormal”. Most people’s anxiety increases when they realize they are feeling anxiety, hence making it worse. So the real debilitating anxiety they feel is over feeling any anxiety at all. Anxiety is our normal response to change and/or growth.

    When of a neurotic natural, an individual should seek help in dealing with it. Rollo also notes that anxiety can come from a conflict between the outside environment and core beliefs. This is what I think alot of people in today’s culture feel. The battle between what they have learned/taught in school, church, home and what they see and feel when interacting with society. How you resolve these conflicts is a question alot of people struggle with.

    Ability to Value…you have to have the ability to value whether something fits with your sense of self that includes your beliefs, thoughts, feelings. This is where maturity and experience can help as well as embracing, as Rollo puts it, your “inherited traditions” as guides.

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