OPINION: “HIGH ANXIETY IN THE TIME OF COVID-19”

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. FORGET YOURSELF.

Henry Miller

Individualism and authenticity are highly valued traits in a free democratic society. My own concepts of American ideals canonize the  associated freedom. But there is never a “free lunch” in the realm of human nature.

Roy F. Baumeister’s  Book, “Escaping The Self” (which I read a couple of decades ago and either loaned out or lost) started me thinking about the BURDEN OF SELFHOOD. I recently listened to a BBC podcast on the Philosophy of Authenticity (BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time has upwards of 1000 forty-five-minute programs on topics I recommend highly). They discussed the  plight of the “Existential Hero”, and rekindled my interest in the over-demanding Self,  which idea I will argue can help guide an approach to ANXIETY.

Cooped in by SARS CoV-2, the U.S. has experienced a sharp rise in Anxiety and Depression. The Pandemic has deprived us of the sociability, diversions and travel that had previously lured us outside ourselves, and our jobs (except for the computer-connected) which give us purpose. The connectivity (and self-abnegation preached) in religious services has long been on the wane in secular America, and Covid 19 has temporarily closed the remaining Houses of Worship.

How does the Idea of getting OUTSIDE OURSELVES help the person in the grips of Anxiety? If nothing else, it serves as an organizing principle for the CHANGES IN BEHAVIOR (eg. CBT) necessary for lessening Anxiety. Changes in behavior are necessary; you cannot merely will Anxiety away.

IMAGINE the self as an expensive over-large HOUSE. It’s construction started at the moment of your birth, and progressed through infancy (perhaps with a few defects- we can always blame our parents – i.e. attachment theory). It was damaged by Adolescence, improved by our education and occupation, and remodeling continues our entire lives.

Being restricted to our homes is like Solitary Confinement. Having only our own minds to keep us company is severe punishment for 99% of humanity. What would you do if deprived of the internet and confined to a mountain cabin for just one day?  We are used to pervasive and instant connectivity. Our norms of isolation now would have been considered quite expansive just a generation ago. Well, maybe practice living with ourselves is a benefit of Covid – that which does not kill us, etc…

Using the house analogy, we spend a lot of Money and effort decorating the outside of the house  to impress our neighbors (‘amor propre’ of Rousseau). Spending time on Facebook rather than improving the inside, via  re-framing and behavioral change. The many rooms of the house also suggests the many compartments of the mind, some of which are more accessible than others, some almost unknown.

The analogy is far from perfect. For one thing our house should have legs to let us, the little person inside (the ‘homunculus’ of consciousness metaphor), walk our expensive and beloved (I hope) house through the world. Or better yet, ESCAPE IT BY OUTWARD FOCUS.

The ‘yourself-embracing reality’, out in the world, without the distortions (and protections) of your carefully crafted identity.

Do you dare?

Service (work) gets you outside yourself. To quote Kant:

“I slept and dreamt that life that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.”

Mindfulness (meditation) gets you outside yourself, to focus on the outside world. The religions of the world prescribe much of our behavior, defining our self-importance, and our expensive houses as “pride”, as something to diminish.

The word Ecstasy (not the recreational drug) is from the Greek (“to step outside oneself”). Ecstasy ( as well as orgasm, i.e. Woody Allen) may be OK occasionally, but for every day, most of us would prefer the Delphic Oracle admonition: “Medan agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν) – “Nothing in Excess”.

Enough hot air already! For those who prefer practical tips or neurobiology to conceptual framework, see the articles below.

-Dr. C.

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