a philosophical approach to anxiety

Hello!

This quarantine has been incredibly stressful for everyone. People have been struggling to sustain themselves both physically (job, food/supplies, etc.) and mentally. 

For me, almost the entirety of quarantine has been filled with terrible anxiety and worry.

I needed an outlet for my stress, and so I poured it into preparation for my AP tests and working on my college application. I devoted hours to studying and stressing over my extracurriculars; every extra moment I could spare was used to pore over stats and college reaction videos on youtube, and I found myself spiraling as I read through unending lists of writing and science competitions. 

This was terrible for my mental health. Constantly comparing myself to others made me feel as though all my accomplishments were insignificant; as if they were meaningless when contrasted with others’. 

I found myself isolating. Every evening, I would shut myself up in my art room and draw. Whenever someone walked in, I felt this terrible sense of anger and irritability. I would immediately snap and tell them to leave me be.

Sometimes the anxiety would get so bad that I would physically tense up; I just felt so scared, so stupid compared to other people. I felt as if I wasn’t doing enough.

As if I wasn’t good enough.

I constantly pushed myself to do better and better, making the false promise that I would feel much happier once I achieved my goals— and yet, once I achieved them, my pride was incredibly brief and subsided almost immediately. After I accomplished something, I put it past me and moved on to the next thing on my list.

After the AP tests, I thought I had finally calmed down. However, this was not the case; I was still constantly worried about doing more. I even ventured onto College Confidential, the most toxic and debilitating forum out there. I self-isolated and recoiled from human connection.

As you might expect, this was terrible— not only for me, but for my family as well. The anxiety wasn’t 24/7 anymore, as it was before the exams, but it was still very prevalent, and prevented me from truly enjoying the present moment.

I recently started listening to this philosophy podcast called Philosophize This by Stephen West. I absolutely adore it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

This podcast got me deeply interested in philosophy and thought.

Most of the philosophers, at least from the early Hellenistic period, all sought one goal— eudaimonia (happiness/wellbeing). Initially, I listened to their personal methods to reaching welfare from an outsider’s perspective, purely from interest. 

However, very recently I realized that I needed to apply their thinking to my real life. Laozi, Leibniz, Spinoza— all of these great thinkers spent their entire lives seeking the answer to a virtuous life. In order to genuinely thank them for their work, I was morally obligated to further their knowledge and attempt to insert it in my personal experiences. 

However, I didn’t truly synthesize this until yesterday. Yes, yesterday! Yesterday, I wasn’t happy or content at first. Again, I was looking to the future, worried about things that might not even happen. My future-oriented way of thinking had made life fly by much too quickly, without me being able to properly appreciate it. I had been comparing myself to Yale graduates and national scholars, frantically scanning research papers published by high school students— and, as you can imagine, I was in distress. The only way to explain my emotions is that I was spiraling. I was spiraling into a dense whirlwind of comparison, self-doubt, and trepidations. The “goblins” of panic were coming out.

Then, I decided to take a walk. I took my notebook, a pen, and my phone, and I went to a nearby meadow.

I put on my adored philosophy podcast, and I walked and relished in the outdoors. The sun-drenched blades of grass, the whistles of nature, the hot concrete stairs on which I rested completely overwhelmed me. I suddenly felt a sense of nostalgia, of childhood summers entrenched in carefree innocence. I paused my podcast, and I decided to take notes on the plethora of concepts I had been listening to for the past couple of weeks. I started with Rene Descartes.

Rene Descartes

I cannot begin to express how incredible that sensation was. Finally, after months of agony, I was once more connected to the present. 

I have always felt disconnected from my body. Even in elementary school, I would constantly tell my mom how I’d stare at my hand and repeat “I’m real” until I got completely shocked. It felt as though I had been living through someone else, or through a fictional book or movie; and when I forced myself to acknowledge my current existence, I was shocked and perturbed. In middle school, I would feel like I was looking down at my body from above; like my mind was separate from my physical existence (this reminds me of the great thinker Avicenna and his flying man thought experiment, but that’s a story for another time 🙂 )

Anyway, I have always struggled to be mindful and in the present. And now, more than ever before, I found myself continually looking towards the future in doubt and self-hate. 

So you can conceive my relief when finally, finally, I was grounded. I was sitting, and I was writing about Rene Descartes, and I was breathing. 

When I came home, my mom had a talk with me. She told me that she had been angry with me all day due to a fight we had yesterday. I started crying, she started crying; we didn’t want to fight. And it was at that moment that I realized I had to make a change. It reminded me of Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy— I didn’t want to lose such a precious relationship as I had with my mother because we couldn’t express our emotions properly. I love my family, yet I was constantly tense and isolated, and so I took it out on them. I realized that it had to STOP immediately, or else I would permanently squander my most valued bonds and connections due to an act of sheer folly committed in my teen years. 

Later in the evening, I was again writing about Descartes in my notebook. And I came upon this quote of his:

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it”

And another one:

“We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly”

Here, Descartes is saying that in order to solve a problem, one must break it down into the smallest pieces they can and then behold the truth. These smaller pieces are much less complex and easier for our minds to manage; there is less opportunity for error, and we are able to perceive the truth more clearly.

Normally, I would just read the quotes and thoughts of these philosophers without truly processing them. I thought, I don’t have any of the problems that these thinkers wish to resolve (again, my subconscious ideas of perfection, and my instinct of wanting to believe everything is completely okay). 

But in this instance, I decided to apply his philosophy to my life. I thought, and I thought deeply. And after breaking down my constant anxiety, fears, and self-doubt, I reached the conclusion that I was at war with myself. My internal dialogue was a hostile, bloody war-zone, and I was tearing myself apart. I self-isolated and cringed from touches and hugs because I couldn’t even live with myself, much less be able to open up to someone else.  

I realized that I need to find inner peace. This may seem cliche, but I could care less.

My goal is to find peace with myself. I need to accept and genuinely love myself in order to be profoundly happy. 

Laozi

I thought of Laozi, and his ideas of Taoism. Taoism (or Daoism) mistrusts conventional knowledge. After all, its most firm belief is that humans will never be able to truly comprehend the “Tao”.

“…who rules the realm with knowledge, is the terror of the realm…”

“…forget about knowledge and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times better off. Throw away charity and righteousness, and people will return brotherly love. Throw away profit and greed, and there won’t be any thieves…”

I initially scorned this controversial stance of “anti-learning” and “anti-knowledge”. I thought, what a simple and stupid way to attain virtue! Not desiring to learn? That’s ridiculous.

And though I retain my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, I also realize how wrong I was with this rash black and white judgment. The initial stem of all my anxiety was, in fact, a trepidation of how vast the knowledge of the universe is, and fear that I would never attain it in its totality. The Taoist approach to simply letting go (“flowing”), and honing in on yourself, has incredible merit. Allowing to “forget yourself, and you will never be forgotten”— meaning, do things truly for the purpose of helping others, and not to make yourself look better. I was constantly needing to be productive, and feeling guilty if I wasn’t. I was forcing myself to do things solely because I thought colleges would like to see them on my transcript. If I did something for my own happiness, I either rejected it as a waste of time, or tried to alter it so as to fit my conceptions of what productivity entails. 

Taoism advocates, at least to me, that we should indeed thirst for knowledge, but only for the right reasons. 

In my therapy session today, I was able to really hone in on this idea of peace and doing things with intention. My therapist helped me lay out some points that would recenter me on this journey to self-acceptance, and help me track my progress:

  1. Self-acceptance
  2. Genuinely loving myself/being less harsh 
  3. Being focused on the present moment
  4. Being mindful and calm

These are all with the purpose of soothing my innards, and establishing a calm in the torrent of internal doubt and fear. Some further tactics I developed during the session were

  • To practice gratitude
  • Utilize grounding techniques when I “spiral”
    • Go through the senses; body scan
    • Become present and mindful
    • Write out the shame circle
      • Get outside, take a break
      • Look at it with fresh eyes and compassion
  • Say thank you to compliments and let them actually sink in; absorb them

This journey to peace is a long one, with an undefined answer. I tend to gravitate towards black and white, which is why philosophy is so interesting to me— it forces me to realize that there is no black and white, almost always regardless of the issue! 

Rather than looking upon daunting tasks with fear and preconceived anxiety before I even begin, I must instead relish in the unknown. For how depressing would it be to discover the absolute truth of the world? Us humans are characterized by our relentless curiosity and desire to learn more. If we reach the end answer, our purpose would be void. So, I must embrace this unknown knowledge; and delight in the fact that I have so much left to discover. And I must do it for myself, and the betterment of my mental state. 

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