Varieties of Anxiety

Modern psychiatry: driving you up a wall when the stairs are right next door.

I recently upset a bunch of Twitter followers for saying that anxiety can be cured through mindfulness and meditation. Most responses were from thoughtful users who understood the nuances of the statement. But a few people were revolted. “This is bullshit.” “This is the dumbest thing you’ve said yet.” “Anxiety is a chemical imbalance.” You get the idea.

I’m not a psychiatrist, but my grandfather, Sandy, was a prominent early psychoanalyst at Yale and Austin Riggs before establishing his own practice. He came up at a time where Americans were just learning how deal with these new conditions. Anxiety was not a popular concern. Depression was not a popular concern. Homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. There was both confusion and naïveté in the field.

Fast forward to 2016. Homosexuality is thankfully no longer a medicated mental illness! But new ridiculous habits in the field of psychiatry have emerged. “Anxiety” “depression” “schizoid” and “borderline”, all legitimate diagnoses for severe conditions that, in those who suffer from them in a debilitating way, are actually life-threatening and chemical, also appear in smaller amounts in all of us. They’re buzzwords now. Regular humans are often, by psychiatric standards, thought to be severely ill even if they can function perfectly well in society. It’s like when you go on WebMD with a common cold and leave thinking you have esophageal cancer.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenhan_experiment

Back to the point. We are human beings after all. We all suffer. We all have our demons. If we didn’t we would be remarkably uninteresting. We wouldn’t innovate. We couldn’t create art. We wouldn’t help one another with the same sense of compassion and empathy. Thank god for our small quirks, neuroses and sufferings! They teach us wonderful lessons.

I do apologize to the suffering people who I may have offended by saying that through mindfulness and meditative practices we can cure anxiety. For those with severe chemical anxiety, this may not be immediately possible. But statistically the vast majority of humans are not severely mentally ill. If they were, we’d have to shift the scale of sanity and normalcy to compensate for our collective insanity (a strange phenomenon that does occur and can be the topic for another post).

The truth of the matter is that most of us do suffer anxiety unnecessarily. We are living in very strange and chaotic times. Our attention is literally being bid for at all hours of the day. Our intimate data is collected for profit. We’re able to communicate with anyone anywhere at the push of a button. And yes, it does drive us all a bit insane, seeing as it’s a supremely inorganic privilege. We drive this artificial anxiety away by returning to our primal nature. We exercise. We eat wholesome foods. We sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day (if we can). We practice compassion, mindfulness, discipline and self-respect in our daily lives.

The problem with psychiatry is that, for the sake of profit and bureaucratic nonsense, a large number of completely well-adjusted people have been convinced that they need to be fixed— they need medications or expensive therapies. This is often simply not the case. I know numerous people who have been rendered helpless pharmaceutical crack addicts thanks to poor psychiatry. They’ve been able to recover their lives through practices like meditation, exercise and hard work.

Our demons exist for a reason. Yes, sometimes they’re caused by severe imbalances and require brain medicine— a modern luxury, with all the nuances and pitfalls included in the small print disclaimers accompanying most modern luxuries. Most of the time, however, we suffer as a learning opportunity. We have obstacles to push past, chaos to breathe through. We suffer from poor body image so we can learn to exercise and respect our bodies. We suffer from bad relationships so we can exterminate the lies and egoism in ourselves. We suffer from terrible jobs so we can learn to have the courage and honesty to find something valuable to do in life.

If we convince ourselves that our problems can’t be fixed, that we can’t work to improve ourselves, why not just hole up with a bunch of drugs? Most of us are blessed with the power to overcome struggle. We should not take this blessing for granted. Without challenges to overcome, life becomes nothing more than a boring zero-sum game.

I hope that you can find ways to sublimate your anxiety and sadness into value for yourself and others. Create art. Learn new skills. Read great books. See nature in yourself and yourself in nature. Spend time with animals and good friends. You get the idea. And don’t forget to breathe.

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