Anxiety and Depression from a Philosophical Viewpoint

[This post was written in response to a friend who feels guilty about their depression.]

Consider these two questions: 1) Are you responsible for being depressed or anxious? And 2) Should you feel guilty or ashamed of being depressed or anxious? Let’s consider the first question.

Here are four possibilities regarding your responsibility for being depressed:

1) You’re not free, and thus you are not responsible for being depressed;
2) You’re free, and thus you are responsible for being depressed;
3) You’re not free, but you are still responsible for being depressed;
4) You’re free, but you are not responsible for being depressed.

Consider the benefits and costs of each option:

  • The benefit of adopting #1 is that you don’t feel responsible for your situation; the cost is that you don’t feel free to change your situation.
  • The benefit of #2 is that you do feel free to change your situation; the cost is that you feel responsible for your situation.
  • #3 only has costs; you don’t feel free to change your situation, and you do hold yourself responsible for your situation.
  • #4 only has benefits; you feel free to change your situation, and you don’t feel responsible for your situation.

From a cost/benefit analysis, you should choose #4. Why don’t people do this? Probably because they don’t think #4 makes sense. Most people think that either #1 or #2 is true. But #3 and #4 are possibilities too. We might live in a determined world where people should still be held responsible (#3). Our mental states might be determined, but we are responsible for taking drugs or going to counseling to change those states. Or we might live in a world in which free will exists and yet people shouldn’t be held responsible (#4). We might be free to choose our actions and mental states, but not be responsible for them because determinism is very strong. (For more on free will go here and here and here.)

I’m don’t know which option best represents the state of the world. So we can’t definitely answer the question, “Am I responsible for being depressed or anxious?” But what we can say is that you might as well believe #4. To do this just accept that the past is determined, it is closed—you can’t affect it. But the future is not determined, it is open—you can affect it. (These claims could be wrong if backward causation is possible, or if fatalism is true. But almost no professional philosophers hold such views.) So it is easy to believe that we are free but not responsible.

Now consider the second question: Should you feel guilty for being depressed or anxious? Here an insight from Stoicism is invaluable—we can’t change the way some things are, but we can change our view of those things. Guilt and shame are attitudes toward reality that we can reject. So just think, “I will not feel guilt or shame.” Of course, we can choose shame and guilt, and if we do we shouldn’t feel guilty about that either. But we can choose not to do this too. We can say, to hell with guilt! So go ahead and say it. To hell with guilt! Remember, guilt is something that other people or organizations use so that they can control and manipulate you. Instead, control your view of things.

Now suppose you try to change your attitude, but a week or a month or a year later you still feel guilty about being depressed. I say keep trying, but don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. Remember, you’re only free, if at all, regarding your actions in the present! And the present recedes into the past instantaneously. So just keep telling yourself: “right now I’m free to try to reject guilt, and even if I’m not successful I won’t feel guilty.”

But don’t try too hard either. Things take time, patience is a virtue. Relax, accept yourself, and let the guilt slowly recede. Remember that everything changes, and you will too. Go with the flow, change with the universe, and don’t fight too hard. Flow as peacefully as possible down the river of life.

In other words, don’t forget the Taoist concept of Wu Wei. Wu Wei literally means “without action”, “without effort”, or “without control.” It also means “action without action” “effortless doing” or “action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort.” This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act or that the will is bad, but that we should place our will and actions in harmony with nature. And sometimes nature will take its time to cure our ailments. Sometimes we just have to wait for things to pass. And, for better or worse, all things will pass.

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17 thoughts on “Anxiety and Depression from a Philosophical Viewpoint

  1. Question no. 1, I have often asked it to myself. It is undeniable that I gravitate toward melancholy. I guess that is my nature, but I try to not go too far in that direction, and I know when to stop. What I mean is that as an “ex-average person”, I much better now understand how things work: while most people do not (which is why they are average people). Here’s an example: let’s say one has been rejected by a person they find very attractive. Most people will fuss about such a common and trivial matter for too long. They just cannot understand that these occurrences have ALWAYS been only too common.

    So when I learn that a great composer like Jeremiah Clarke took his life because a woman he liked had rejected him, I cannot but conclude that he was a fool, and a weak one at that.

    In my opinion, everyone (i.e. average people) should study Stoicism in great detail. I have done that and I will never be the same again. Along with that they should study argumentation. I believe this is what Schopenhauer meant when he described as “developing the powers of the mind”.

    Then, and only then, will one start to see past their noses. But most people are like children, for example they expect perfection from anyone else, politicians especially. Except themselves, of course. They are completely oblivious to their many and varied defects.

    To return to the topic about depression, I seem to understand that depression can be caused by physiological factors; this cause is of course a great problem. But in other cases it is caused by people’s inability to see past their noses. They played too many videogames and wasted too much time on Netflix and empty entertainment, and the very poor results certainly show.

    I am not trying to appear as if I were blessed with special intellectual abilities. I am just a slightly above average fool in a big crowd of average fools.

    In regard to guilt, I always think that if one has not caused harm to anyone, they should not feel guilty about almost anything. For if one should feel guilty about being depressed (which is frankly stupid: if anything, “depression can be mental lucidity”, as someone explained on youtube. Unfortunately I don’t recall his name), then how guilty should feel murderers, rapists, and all the rest?

    This guilt problem is a deception perpetuated by ‘society’ and popular ‘culture’. And if one feels guilty about genuine mistakes, an excellent story from the Hagakure illustrates very interesting points:

    “When I was a young samurai, I had the idea of starting a journal where I would note down all the mistakes I happened to make through the day.

    But soon things got out of control. I simply could not keep up with the journal anymore, as the entries were increasing more and more. So I understood that it is impossible to live and not make mistakes, and I threw away the journal”.

    Personally, I would not throw it away (in fact I have started one myself). But the story illustrates that one should not expect not to male mistakes. Therefore, if one sincerely repents about their mistakes (unless they are TOO great), they should never, ever feel guilty about their mistakes, let alone depression!

    Personally I am starting to believe that depressed people are the SANE ones. I was asked a question by a well meaning person some time ago, she asked: “are you happy?” (a trite, common, and childish question). The first thought that came to mind was: “Only an idiot can be ‘happy’ “. But I didn’t say anything to not look like a party wrecker.

    Thanks for your excellent article.

  2. As a lifelong anxiety patient with some depression (hospitalized and entered psychoanalysis in 1962), I find this discussion irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether I’m responsible or not. What matters is that I live a happy and productive life. What’s the value of guilt or shame for me? None whatever. If this remark seems shallow philosophically, that too is beside the point: it is merely pragmatic. Still struggling with anxiety and depression at 84, I have learned to manage it pretty well, and so I have lived a more-or-less happy and productive life. What is it Freud said? That psychoanalysis aimed to change neuroticism to ordinary unhappiness…I think I have done better than that (though of course that too is beside the point.)

  3. I would also have selected #4. Having never suffered from these two debilitating conditions, thank God, I have been around folks that have suffered immensely with depression/anxiety. We humans are delicate, the slightest imbalance in our hormonal levels or other chemical imbalances can cause havoc in our mood swings. While we still lack a complete understanding of these disorders, some medicines seems to help sufferers. My advise to these folks has always been to abandon the guilt (not helpful) and seek solutions that may help their condition.

  4. Charley – As for finding this irrelevant I say “fair enough.” And good for you that you can say that. The post was actually addressed to a specific friend who is wrapped with guilt. Thanks for the comments.

  5. Good advice. I’ve been lucky in this regard too but have had friends and loved ones who have had tough times.But this can happen to anyone. A little too much stress and you can unravel.

  6. I briefly touch on the fact that “studies show that depressed individuals have a more accurate view of themselves and reality than non-depressed ones and that happy people may be somewhat delusional. So this gives us good reasons to lend more credence to the views of the depressed.”The reference can be found at:

    Your samurai story reminded me of one a psychiatrist friend told me in the form of a joke. “You how many families were allowed into the functional family society?” None.

    Also, I’ve written about the Stoics on death if interested at:

  7. In fact, what I consider delusional is not the -state- of being happy. I too have been so, at times (not to ever have been happy, at any point in life, about anything, would be terrible). What I consider delusional is happiness being some sort of long-term, lasting fairy tale that a lot of people seem keen to want to believe in.

    Ironically, I am the first to say: ” be happy about whatever you can be happy about”. Just don’t delude yourself that it will last for a long time, and do not expose yourself to danger. Also, I believe one should be grateful for whatever there’s to be grateful for, and not to take everything for granted. I am grateful for having a roof over my head and a bed to sleep on, and a few little things beside those.

  8. Every Man (Human) is a Philosopher in the personal sense, whether they know it or not, or if they even understand philosophy as an intellectual exercise whereby we try and make sense of, and cope with, the World as we experience it, everyone sees, and interprets the World through the philosophical lenses their life experiences have given them.
    Life’s experience, and therefore consciousness of experiences begin before self consciousness manifests, with the manifestation of self consciousness the ‘Self’ is born, some people claim to have some memories of this time before the ‘Self’ was born but most do not! (It seems that we need the ‘Self’ to anchor our memories around)

    Do you remember the day you became self conscious? You already had some vocabulary because the questions in your mind like, where am I? Who am I? Why am I here? Came as thoughts expressed as words, this is the day you became conscious of the Voice in your head, a voice destined to talk to you from then until,,well until the voice, eventually and inevitably falls silent!

    What were your circumstances the day you became conscious? Had your life always been happy and content? If so becoming conscious of being an entity in a happy and contented world would not have caused you too much distress, and when distress inevitably appeared, as it always does for everyone, your internal voice, your self, had a memory of a more settled time and could attempt to adjust your thinking to return to a an equilibrium, not remembered consciously, yet still part of your life’s experiences!

    On the other hand, to state the darker side of life, should your self have appeared into a world of overwhelming fear, perhaps fear would be your companion for all your journey through the world! Living in constant fear would lead people into very dark places!

    “Sometimes we just have to wait for things to pass. And, for better or worse, all things will pass.”
    (Dr. John)

    Perhaps the question should be, What can I do about anything, outside of myself? And the true answer is, Not very much!

    I have no idea why the world is the way it is, some people seem to triumph over obstacles and others not, the reason for the difference isn’t obvious and as we can only look at things through our own eyes we can never really see what someone else sees!

    Happy holidays and a prosperous new Year to everyone!

  9. Now to put a question mark on the biggest lie in literature: “And they lived happily ever after.” After all, “If every day is sunny then what’s a sunny day?” I have found the higher levels of happiness I reach come with the price of a corresponding letdown, like the letdown one experiences after returning from an exciting vacation. It’s like my body has a behavior thermostat: not too much happiness not too much depression. I ignore it occasionally at my own peril.

  10. I knew a philosophy professor at UNLV. About the desert, she told me “perpetual sunshine is depressing.”

  11. Depression? That is a broad topic!
    Happiness? An Eastern philosopher might say: if you seek happiness, you won’t find happiness.
    Will more or less leave it there, to avoid attempting to seek meaning—and not discovering such, either.
    Chalk it up to busywork; one tries to attain happiness and meaning [h. & m.] but never does discover h. and m. Thus the purpose is the hunt for h. and m, not the capture of h. and m. As fox hunting can give the hunter a purpose in chasing the fox—yet never bagging it.
    Undoubtedly, philosophers have discussed the above. And psychologists…and sociologists…

  12. I have dealt with both essentially all my life. Irrespective of the free will issue, I feel empowered to control my emotions when I have to (being perhaps unable to choose what I want doesn’t mean I can’t do what I want). Shame is not applicable since I hide both D and A.
    I am careful to not ‘contaminate’ others with my inner struggles, but if I were to inadvertently spill some D and make another person feel D, I’d feel quite guilty.
    My kind of D, however burdensome, is more of the philosophical kind, not amenable to pharmacotherapy, and aids me in searching for ‘truths.’ Because I take advantage of it as a tool, I remove its mental weeds regularly, I’ve read Feeling Good and expunged the biases listed and any others I become aware of.
    Would I rather be happy and oblivious? Not really. But I wish my oft-cleaned lenses would enable me to not only *perhaps* see some things a little more clearly, but also find spectacular solutions to the chief causes of creature misery.

  13. Wise advice. This is the second time I have read both your essay and my own little thoughts. Nothing to add, only that I now think “therapists” are dumb….they talk nonsense like “breathe”.

    This is so stupid it a seems a big joke. Aren’t we breathing already? If we weren’t, we would not know.

    What I am trying to say is that this therapy stuff is devised by lazy people for lazy people, that stuff like “breathing” and CBT is simplistic, and that to fight depression one has to dig really deep and try to fortify himself with all the help available. In my view this can only be done with the help of philosophers….it is beyond me why “theraphists” don’t know jack about Stoicism.

    I remember once going to a therapist, said all my problems, and felt like a complete idiot for doing so. The entire exercise was completely worthless and I didn’t learn anything. Because there was nothing to learn.

    Thank you, Dr. Messerly. Thank you, philosophers.

  14. thanks Luigi. I haven’t experienced depression, although one of my loved ones has, but I have experienced anxiety. Best prescription for it that works for me is … exercise.

  15. Dr. Messerly,

    I am lucky in that I haven’t really experienced depression to any great extent….my burning love for music kept me pretty busy and charged. Also exercise, most definitely. However I had some anger problems, the type you keep inside. Guess what, philosophy has mostly cured this. While everyone goes around feeling bad about how the world doesn’t work according to their fancy ideals, I now know far better.

    And yes, I too, still have anxiety. I am even honoured to have this in common with you.

    Kind regards,

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