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: