The Meaning of Anxiety and Depression
Analytical Psychology, the psychological approach to suffering developed by C.G. Jung, is very different from traditional methods of psychology or psychotherapy. To illustrate the differences, I focus in this article on anxiety and depression because they are worldwide problems. Conventional approaches treat anxiety and depression as though they are the problems in and of themselves, rather than the symptoms of an underlying imbalance in the whole person.
One cannot treat the psyche without touching on man and life as a whole.C.G. JungEach approach to therapy focuses one particular dimension of a person, treating only the various manifestations of anxiety or depression. For example, the medical approach says it’s a chemical imbalance and so uses pharmacology to treat the imbalance. Cognitive behavioral therapy states that distorted beliefs or thoughts cause negative actions or feelings and so works to change those distorted patterns by reinforcing not-so-distorted patterns.
Psychological suffering is not just a mental or chemical imbalance. To think of it in this way is to fall victim to the misconception of the mind/body split. We are whole beings. Whenever we suffer, that suffering expresses itself at every level. Anxiety and depression affects the whole person: psycho-spiritually, physically, mentally, and physiologically. The signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression will manifest at every level.
Anxiety and Depression: A holistic perspective
Healing comes only from that which leads the patient beyond himself and beyond his entanglements with ego….C.G. JungFrom the Jungian point of view, psychological suffering is a signal that something in our whole life is out of balance, and certain states of anxiety and depression are no exceptions.
I think that either of the approaches mentioned above can be good for treating acute symptoms of anxiety and depression. Medicine can certainly help snap someone out of a potentially life-threatening mood disorder. But to medicate someone to the point where they can no longer feel is not curative; it’s injurious. Human feeling is what makes us human.
Cognitive-behavioral techniques for breaking down destructive reactions and thought patterns can help you separate your true self from the destructive thoughts and feelings that come with anxiety and depression, but you cannot simply re-program yourself to think better thoughts and expect to be truly healed.
You have to take a conscious standpoint against those thoughts and moods, something I talk about in the second part of this article.
Cognitive Behavior Approach to Recognizing Destructive Patterns
I want to borrow from the cognitive-behavioral classification of negative thought/emotional patterns because these categories are easily recognizable in both anxiety and depression. In Jungian analytical psychology, we also see similar patterns emerging around psychological complexes, something I explain later. Wherever I can, I’ll note possibilities for Jungian analysis to each category so you can see what I mean by underlying issues.
Recognition of your habitual patterns is a key factor in learning how to consciously face anxiety and depression.
Recognition of your patterns around anxiety and depression
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. C.G. JungRealizing your destructive patterns is the reductive part of your healing process. Reduction is a process of breaking down your habitual reactions and thoughts. You have to catch yourself whenever you’re auto-responding.
My problem with the cognitive behavioral approach to treatment is that it relies too heavily on the rational function and its supposed power to explain away symptoms. Anxiety and depression also have irrational factors that can’t be intellectualized out of existence. If only it were that easy!
And as far as simply re-programming the mind, changing the manifested pattern does not change the underlying problem. Whether it’s through Jungian analysis, counseling, or psych-education, our goal is to discover not only the source of your anxiety and depression, but also the course we need to follow in order to heal the psychic situation.
That last part – following the course to healing – is unique to Jungian psychology. This course of healing is directly linked to finding the meaning in the darkness of anxiety and depression.
Now, I know that some people denigrate the value of finding meaning, but that’s only because they themselves lead meaningless lives
Some of us are inexplicably drawn into finding the meaning of our extraordinary life experiences, regardless of how traumatic those experiences were. Once we’ve broken down the issue and unpacked all of the negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors which revolve around that issue, we have to build ourselves back up. In opposition to the reductive method, Jung called this part of psychotherapy constructive.
My experience with anxiety and depression
I speak about these things from the depths of my own life experiences. I don’t say anything just because Jung said it. Never would I encourage anyone to go down a path that I had not traveled myself. For example, I lived for decades with a diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder and chronic insomnia. Now, I could point to any number of childhood experiences that could explain why I was constantly anxious and sleepless as an adult, but knowledge of that connection did me no good. Taking medication to alleviate the chemical imbalance caused by repeated stress in my life also did not help me.
There was some irrational factor that kept bursting up like a geyser and wiping out any newfound revelations regarding my childhood and my distorted perspective. I had identified in myself virtually every one of those categories on that cognitive behavioral list though not with CBT. My method was yoga and C.G. Jung. In order to unravel those distorted patterns, I had to surrender to accepting some disgusting experiences in my life. There was just no amount of medicine or re-programming that was going change any of it.
I have learned more about myself from looking at those times of abject confusion and despair than from looking at any others. It took me a very long time to understand my psychological pain from this perspective, but when I finally did, the way I saw my anxiety and depression changed.
If we can face our suffering consciously, rather than identifying with it, then we have an opportunity to grow from it, both psychologically and spiritually. This is what Jung meant by the above quote: we must be willing to experience legitimate suffering.
Anxiety, Depression, and Legitimate Suffering
Of course, this begs the question, “What is legitimate suffering?”
If you say that you suffer from anxiety or depression and leave it at that, then you are not legitimately suffering. No doubt that you are suffering, but not from your anxiety or depression. As I said, those are symptoms – reactions from within to a psychic illness, much like a fever is a reaction to a physical illness. And just as a fever is an attempt at physical healing, symptoms of anxiety and depression are also attempts at psychic healing.
In order to claim legitimately suffering, you must ask some questions: “From where does this anxiety and depression come? Why does it come? To what purpose does it happen?” These are very deep questions. In order to find the answers, you have to dig deep – and I mean really deep.
In my experience working with clients, I never cease to be amazed at how easily people gloss over or push aside painful experiences, especially those which happened in childhood. Others, like myself, get stuck in the rage and sense of injustice without experiencing the profound grief of losing a childhood.
Unresolved terror, rage, grief, or any other emotions that we push aside or suppress – these are the places we have to go in order to get to the roots of depression and anxiety. Once you find yourself in the midst of those emotions, you then have to turn them inside out, as Jung suggests below in his letter to a depressed friend.
Anxiety and Depression: Why Me?
Jung suggested that we always ask ourselves: “Who am I that all this should happen to me?” To find the answer to this fateful question he will look into his heart.”
I can tell you that sometimes you look in your heart and see only an endless black hole, and sometimes there is only one thing you can do— let yourself fall into it.
When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me, for in excessu affectus (in an excess of affect or passion) Nature reverses herself. I would turn in rage against myself and with the heat of my rage I would melt my lead. I would renounce everything and engage in the lowest activities should my depression drive me to violence. I would wrestle with the dark angel until he dislocated my hip. For he is also the light and the blue sky which he withholds from me.
If you know anything about Jung’s Red Book, then you know that he too wrestled with the dark angels of anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and Depression: Getting to the core
You get to the core of these states through an intentional act of introversion, something like meditation. You have to start with the mood itself. If depression feels dark, then enter that feeling of darkness. If anxiety feels like fear, then enter the feeling of that fear. Don’t attach to any external meaning for your feeling, for example lost jobs, broken relationships, chemical imbalances, or bad childhoods. Move past that.
What you’re trying to do is harness the raw energy that’s behind the anxiety or depression – that’s where the numinous experience is. Remember that Jung said “the gods have become diseases.” Seen from this perspective, anxiety or depression is an inner calling from the gods within.
Once you can reach that raw energy state you have to sit with it. Now, there’s a tremendous amount of tension in this raw energy, and, it can be quite difficult to bear it. Don’t get pulled back into blaming some external cause. Stay with the tension of that raw energy. One of Jung’s most amazing Red Book discoveries was that this raw energy will form an image of itself – an image with which you can have a dialogue. Psyche speaks in imagery. This same power is behind our dreams.
In a letter to Vera von Lier-Schmidt Ernsthausen, 25 April 1952, Jung wrote:
I have observed, for example, that as a rule when “archetypal” contents arise spontaneously in dreams, etc., numinous and healing effects emanate from them. These are primordial psychic experiences that very often reopen a patient’s access to religious truths that have been blocked. I have also had this experience myself. . . .
When you can answer the first two questions, then you know from what you are truly suffering. And then from there, you must endure it until your suffering breaks open and reveals its healing qualities. This will answer the next two questions. When you can do this, you will eventually tap the sublime springs of your inner resources of healing, something I talked about in my post on the Power of Silence. In short, those inner resources spring from what Jung called the archetypes.
Up to this point, I have talked about the meaning and purpose of anxiety and depression. Now, let’s take a look at how these mindstates can emerge.
Anxiety and Depression from the 13th Century Perspective
The 13th century poet Rumi wrote a beautiful poem called the Guest House that describes exactly what I mean:
This human being is a guest-house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Anxiety and Depression: Unwanted Guests or Heralds for Change?
Anxiety attacks and depression can come out of nowhere. One day we are fine and the next we are filled with angst and despair. There are mornings when any of us can awaken to one of Rumi’s new arrivals: it is a dark thought, a meanness, a malice. The same visitors show up again and again in our guest houses. We can get to know them because of the nature of their qualities. By that, I mean that certain visitors – hidden aspects of our personality – have a feeling-tone that we can recognize as a kind of invader to our overall sense of well-being.
We are talking about waking up with or suddenly feeling a sense of dread, fear, worry, or some other kind of shift in our overall mood. The key is to really take notice of it and try not to act from that mood. The more we do this, the better attuned we become to those subtle (and not subtle) shifts in our minds and bodies and the less we identify with them. Instead, we try to get to the root of the problem.
Anxiety and Depression from the Jungian Perspective of Complexes
This kind of feeling-toned guest is called a complex. The word complex is one that we throw around lightly in conversation. But a complex is anything but “light.” Complexes are often heavy and dark. Not taking them seriously leaves our ego permeable to a full-on invasion which can drag us into prolonged states of discontent or disorientation, i.e. prolonged states of misidentification with the mind’s manifestations.
Who are these unannounced, psychic visitors? From where do they come?
A lot of things can trigger a complex. For example, something simple such as a look someone gives you or an unassuming comment someone makes. They can also be triggered by something deeper like jealousy and insecurity.
According to Jung, a complex has a will of its own. The word Jung used to describe this feature of complexes was autonomous. Having autonomy means that complexes possess enough psychic energy to change our normal perspective on life, and as such, they act upon us like any other object in the world. The “beyond” from which they come is the Unconscious.
The Autonomy of Complexes
In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung writes:
I recognize that there is some psychic factor active in me which eludes my conscious will in the most incredible manner. It can put extraordinary ideas into my head, induce in me into unwanted and unwelcome moods and emotions, lead me to astonishing actions…C.G. Jung
Understanding that complexes possess this kind of autonomy is one of the keys to learning how to successfully work with them. That knowledge helped me to distinguish the complex from me. When a complex overpowers us, we see the world through a very different lens. Something in which we normally trust becomes suspect, or we may become particularly pessimistic, dark, cocky, or cynical. Complexes also have the power to distort our faces, as well as change the tone of our voice, both the voice we use with others and, especially, the one we use in our internal dialogue.
Identifying this other in ourselves is the first step in breaking ourselves free of complex-behavior. When we identify with the moods or thoughts associated with the complex, we are unconsciously identified with the complex. We believe our distorted perspectives about the world, about others, and about ourselves.
Again from Jung:
…identification with an autonomous complex is the essential reason why it is so difficult to understand and describe the problem… We always start with the naïve assumption that we are masters in our own house. Hence we must first accustom ourselves to the thought that, in our intimate psychic life … we live in a kind of house, which has doors and windows to the world, but that, although the objects of this world act upon us, they do not belong to us.Two Essays in Analytical Psychology
Self-Help: Working with States of Anxiety and Depression
How can we greet these moods at the door of our awareness and welcome them? How can such seemingly dark guests be approached as Guides who can clear us out for some new delight?
One should cultivate the art of conversation with oneself … without regard to our rational criticism. So long as the affect [the mood] is speaking, criticism must be withheld… Any humbug is of course quite useless.C.G. JungThe internal dialogue is an opportunity to witness some of our complexes at work. Complexes are the ones playing the character of the “the other”.
I am not talking here about the Gestalt approach of talking to a pillow. The kind of internal dialogue I am talking about reaches much deeper than does having a conversation with a pillow. Imagery for this kind of dialogue – indeed the dialogue itself! – should arise spontaneously. To use something like a pillow for this kind of work doesn’t allow the image to form out of its own nature. And, by that, I mean that all of our psychic process and moods will express themselves in image form. This is the material of our dreams.
Now are approaching one of the reasons why learning to distinguish various mindstates and dimensions is important – we need to use them for our inner work. The stronger we become in establishing ourselves in stillness, the stronger the stimulus barrier around our ego. We can then allow our visitor to speak, as Jung says above. Very often it is trying to tell us something about ourselves of which we are unaware. In this conversation, stillness and movement interact – we are not trying to turn off the mood. We are trying to sink into it. This idea of the interaction of stillness and movement is further described in my post on Meditation for Psychological Transformation.
Dream Interpretation: Anxiety and Depression
Complexes spontaneously arise in image-form in our dreams. They can take on any number of manifestations like apartment or shopping complexes, intricate structures like mazes or labyrinths, as well as strange people coming into our home and taking over. How we respond to these images in the dream sheds light on where we stand in relationship to our complexes. Are we overpowered or empowered? If we are empowered, what gave us that energy? Was it a character in the dream that embodied an aspect of courage that we need to assimilate? In like manner, if we are disempowered, then we can be sure that that the dream is trying to bring this to our awareness. Here, at the very least, we can be grateful that we have been given a picture of a psychic situation with which we are unconsciously identified.
In sum, becoming aware of our dreams as Guides from beyond is one of the ways in which we can welcome our unannounced guests. We can entertain them through an active, non-judgmental, inner dialogue approached as a sort of meditation or reflection. We can then utilize the energy of our dark moods to draw us into the inner dialogue, where once again we find that the answers we seek are within us.