Anxiety and depression

Wisdom is appreciation of the size and complexity of the universe, and of the emptiness of our narrow assumptions. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash


We know that we are born into a universe where we are very small.  If we are honest with ourselves, on the widest scale, none of our plans and projects really matter.  It is this realisation that can be behind many depressive episodes, since the philosophy fits so well with the emotion of despair, in which we sit back, convinced that nothing we ever do really matters.


Equally, we also know that, on an animal level, we are born into a world with us at the centre.  In this visceral sense, our plans and projects matter intensely.  When we want to find a mate, we really, really want to find a mate.  We are the victim of sensations and impulses built into us long before we were born, when our ancestors were formulating the gene pools and social pools from which we emerged.


So we are stuck between two contradictory views.  One view says that nothing we do matters, and that we are very small.  The other says that everything we do matters, and that life is urgent.


These contradictory views map very well onto the traditional characteristics of depression and anxiety.  When we are depressed, we see no reason to do anything, and doubt our impact on the world.  When we are anxious, we get an inner urge suggesting that something must be done right now, because if not something invaluable will be lost.


How come people get depression and anxiety at the same time, if they are such contradictory views?  This is really the point.  Anxiety and depression often coexist because we have not reconciled ourselves to the two extreme views between which we must live – despair and urgency.  You could say that depression and anxiety are at opposite ends of a spectrum, and when we are unstable we swing like a pendulum between the two, one minute convinced that nothing matters, and then next feeling strongly that everything we do matters, or else we may lose everything.


More importantly, how can we get these two contradictory views in right relationship with each other, so that our lives and philosophy can be more stable?

The answer lies in finding ways to achieve an optimal balance between despair and urgency, so that neither dominates.  When we are feeling too urgent, we may need a dose of ‘nothing matters anyway’ to regain our sense of humour.  Equally, when we are feeling too despairing and pointless, we may need to find a way of re-engaging with our visceral, bodily, inborn sense of drive towards curiosity, engagement and consumption.


When we are bipolar, we swing between two extreme states.  We may spend periods of time feeding our natural curiosity, our wish to engage, and our desire to consume.  To others, we look extremely selfish, because we ignore them while we are feeding our personal desires.

We may then swing, through exhaustion, to spending time feeling absolutely nothing, unable to be curious about anything, allergic to engagement, and repelled by everything we wanted to consume before.  We look selfish at these times, too, because we are too tired to engage with anyone else’s problems.


Many philosophers have stumbled upon the dual concepts of compassion and wisdom as very healthy.  This is not for no reason.  In practice, they have discovered two important medicines.


Firstly, they have discovered that compassion (concern for others) counteracts the extreme of depression.  Much happiness research shows that outward-looking attitudes (giving, generosity, empathy, etc.) bring us into better mental health.


Secondly, they have discovered that wisdom counteracts the extreme of anxiety.  Wisdom is an appreciation of the size and complexity of the universe, and of the emptiness of our narrow selfish assumptions.  Anxious urgency cannot coexist with a proper understanding of emptiness.


Both compassion and wisdom save us from our own selfishness – compassion by saving us from the extreme delusion that we matter more than others; and wisdom by saving us from the extreme delusion that our narrow perspective is more true than others.  With compassion and wisdom, we escape the prison of our own restricting attachments, and our own restricting perceptions.


Depression and anxiety, in a way, are extreme viewpoints which are true, but only in a narrow sense.

Depression recognises the truth of the emptiness of the universe, but fails to find a place for interest, engagement and consumption.  So we stop taking an interest, stop engaging with others, and sometimes even stop eating.

Anxiety recognises the truth of our animal urges and urgency – but fails to find a tempering sense of the emptiness of those urges.  So we get caught up in our own attachments, desperately bingeing on short-term obsessions.

In bipolar cycles, we swing between bingeing, engagement and obsession on the one hand, and self-denial, reclusiveness and dissociation on the other.

We can achieve mental health by cultivating compassion for others, and also by cultivating understanding of emptiness.  In time, compassion replaces anxiety, and wisdom replaces depression.