Do you know why anxiety and depression are so prevalent in our day? Why more and more drugs are being invented (or repurposed) for their treatment – with an efficacy hardly better than the placebo effect? Why, despite multi-billions of dollars spent each year on research and treatment, and on the side-effects of that treatment, the problem just keeps getting worse?
I think I know why.
The first thing to understand is that anxiety and depression are not really separate disorders, but are instead the polar dynamics of a bi-polar complex. Sigmund Freud observed this a hundred years ago and named the disorder neurasthenia, nervous exhaustion. Anxiety is the “nervous” part of the pattern, where insecurity or a generalized fear in the nervous system causes muscle tension, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, an over production of stress hormones, hyper-reactivity and worried thoughts.
This squeeze-down on the body and mind demands a huge amount of energy and cannot go on indefinitely. At some point we run out of energy and become “exhausted.” Our body’s muscles, glands, and organs get depleted; our mind loses interest in the world around us and sinks into gloom and dark thoughts of suicide.
Eventually, and mercifully, our autonomic system puts us to sleep so we can recharge and return to our worried life in the morning. Round and round, back and forth, up and down, again and again.
Now, that’s still just a description of what’s happening. An explanation of why it happens, why more and more of us are stuck on this Wheel of Suffering, needs to go beyond symptoms and its bipolar pattern. The above “Z diagram” offers a perspective.
In the middle of everything is our ego, the self-conscious actor whose identity is gradually given shape as we take on roles and play our part in the role plays of social life. According to the psychology of social constructivism, the independent status of our actor-self and the belief that it is (“I am”) separate from the roles we play is a delusion based on the conditioned habit of social performance.
That is to say, the consciousness that inhabits the roles we play becomes conscious of itself (i.e., self-conscious) as “the one who” is performing them. This delusion is evident in the way our self-consciousness is identified with and filtered through our various social roles, present and past – significantly through those associated with the emotional complex called our Inner Child.
Ego is thus a social construction project which, by the mediation of the various identities (roles) we inhabit, relates us outwardly to another and inwardly, or subjectively, to our self. The injunction of “love your neighbor as yourself” is only possible to the degree that our ego is both securely centered and compassionately connected.
A centered self is the power line of identity, while our connection to another is the love line that supports a healthy relationship.
We can sum up this part of the explanation of why we are chronically anxious and depressed by pointing out that ego security is managed in the balance of power (within oneself) and love (toward another). When we lose (or failed to establish) our center, what could have provided the access point to an inward-descending path of consciousness to the deeper oneness or ground of being within ourselves is missing and we have no peace.
Instead, we are anxious and use our already compromised power to manipulate and control what we mistakenly believe is making us anxious.
Quite often this turns out to be other people.
The outcome of our controlling efforts, however, is predictably attachment, entanglement, codependency, hostility, conflict and estrangement – not genuine love, in other words. And the problem here is that a healthy and compassionate connection with another (and others generally) is our access point to an outward-ascending path of consciousness to the higher wholeness that includes us in community, where true joy is found.
Our inability to go beyond (transcend) ourselves, due to our being tangled up and tied down in neurotic attachments, leaves us depressed, the spiritual opposite and absence of joy.
So my explanation of why anxiety and depression are increasing in rate, scope, and severity in our day is that we are blocked from the descending path to peace and from the ascending path to joy.
This is because we are unable to balance power and love in our lives, which itself can be traced to ego insecurity and its compensatory strategies of taking control where control isn’t natural, necessary, or productive. In fact, it is counterproductive and ultimately destructive of our health and wellbeing, our happiness and hope, of harmonious relationships and genuine community.
If the solution isn’t about taking control, then what can we do?
The obvious answer is that we should get centered within ourselves and begin making healthy connections with others. If it’s true that our access to a deeper peace is “down” through our self-center, and that our access to a higher joy is “up” through our connection with another, then perhaps there are ways of re-centering and reconnecting that can open these pathways to inner peace and communal joy.
Well, yes, of course there are. This brings us back to the spiritual principles and practices that have been flowing like an underground stream beneath cultural history and the daily news for millenniums. This wisdom tradition, the perennial philosophy or Sophia Perennis, has served as both matrix and repository of timeless truths that have nourished us and can call us back in such times as today, when we have lost our balance.