Common approaches to anxiety and depression

Many approaches to anxiety and depression tend to treat anxiety and depression as if they were problems in themselves. Traditional psychoanalysis, Jungian analytical psychology and the contemporary therapeutic approaches that flow from them see anxiety and depression as symptoms of a deeper imbalance within the whole person. The medical approach suggests that these symptoms arise as a result of a chemical imbalance which antidepressants and other medication are intended to correct. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) suggests that there is a distortion of beliefs or thinking that give rise to negative feelings and seeks to address those. Both approaches can be helpful, especially if anxiety or depression are becoming unmanageable, but they only ever really deal with the symptoms. The cause remains undiscovered and unexplored so symptoms are likely to arise again.

Psychological suffering cannot be reduced to chemicals or the mind. When we suffer, we suffer as a whole person. The signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression will manifest at every level and such symptoms indicate that something at the core of our being is out of balance. 

Therapeutic analysis of anxiety and depression

The in-depth psychotherapy of anxious and depressed states helps us to look in two directions. Initially we may find ourselves looking backward towards the origins of negative emotional or thought patterns. These might have arisen in response to difficult childhood or parenting experiences, repeated disappointments or not feeling loved or cared for. Unexplored or unresolved differences between ourselves and those who cared for us can also leave us with challenging internal conflicts. Identifying destructive patterns can help us identify them in our current lives and, potentially, change our approach. 

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 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.

Jung, in a letter to a depressed friend
Jacob wrestles with the angel

Jung points us is in the other direction, an alternative path towards healing. This is linked to finding meaning and purpose in our anxiety or depression. The suggestion is that these difficult symptoms may be prompting us to find a richer and deeper experience of life. If we can face our suffering, think about and explore it in the context of the therapeutic relationship, then we have an opportunity to grow. Jung records his own experience of meeting and wrestling with ‘the dark angel’ of psychological pain and distress through the mythological language of The Red Book

The 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi, records a similar approach in his poem The Guest House.

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 honourably.
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 can appear to come out of nowhere, with no obvious cause. The mornings when we wake with that sense of dread or urgency are a sign that one of Rumi’s ‘new arrivals’ have appeared. These are often aspects of our own personality that we do not recognise and we do not like. 

In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung wrote:

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…

Through therapy, meditation, creative activity or working with our dreams we might get to know the dynamics behind these thoughts and moods rather than reject them or pretend they do not exist. In this way, we can find out in what way we are being led on a healing journey to discover meaning and purpose.