Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Stress, anxiety and depression

 

Man in a caveLife is scary – are you stuck up the back of the cave?

Fans of Plato will remember his allegory of people who only see life as shadows on the back of a cave – because that's the only reality they see, they believe the shadows to be reality. They can't see what is actually real because they're chained in such a way that they only see the back of the cave.

I have come to see our survival mechanism produced by the old, survival brain (the limbic brain) as a kind of chain that, in order to protect us from threats in a stressful world, can act as a kind of defence, the purpose of which is not to make us face the back of the cave, but literally force us there psychologically.

We are stuck up the back of a virtual cave, in depression and withdrawal from people and the world. The survival mechanism does this in order to protect us from threats, real or imagined.

As previously discussed, most anxiety and depression is caused by stress (see this) and when we have spent enough time stressed (ramping up for fight or flight) but we're not fighting or running away – Mind/Body/Brain says 'enough – life is too scary – up the back of the cave for you!'

So it sucks our motivation out of us, makes us tired and makes us want to withdraw up to the back of the cave where it's safe, quiet and there are no threats or demands. And there we wait, for the threat to go away. But it doesn't.

Like Plato (not that I'm intending to compete), I'm using the cave as an analogy for involuntary retreat, withdrawal, avoidance, lack of motivation, and so on.

Historically, we would stay up the back of the cave only long enough for the threat to go away. The tiger would give up, food would arrive, someone would light the fire - someone fitter and stronger than you - and it would happen relatively quickly. If you're a creation theorist you might not agree, but I'm taking an evolutionary perspective here.

We've created a reality in which the threats never go away because life is so complex and psychologically and emotionally stressful, as opposed to our actual physical safety.

It's a scary world, in which belonging doesn't just mean the tribe likes and values us and we have enough to eat. Now we have several tribes (work, home, friends, recreation, sport) - complicated relationships all round.

There are big expectations of us from others and ourselves and trying to live up to them all is stressful. Even not being happy is seen by many today as being some kind of failure and therefore stressful.

People stuck up the back of the cave are not necessarily there because of a fear or threat that they're aware of, but many are. In the case of anxiety disorders for example, it is only too apparent what you are avoiding. Fear of social situations, fear of going out the front door (Agoraphobia) or in the case of bereavement, depression associated with grief.

Of course, there's no real cave to retreat into (unless you're a hermit) – the cave becomes the bed, bedroom, couch in front of the TV – or any place where you feel safe.

How to come back out of the cave involves courage on your part, to face the pain and risk of the emotional and psychological ordeal of everyday living. Talking therapy helps, as does the support of family, friends, support groups and sometimes medication (this may help with the symptoms until you feel brave enough to face the entrance).

If we're stuck up the back of the cave for long enough, going through the portal and engaging with the outside world can cause us extreme fear. Eventually, we may decide life is so scary and hopeless that even the back of the cave is not safe enough and we might decide to exit from life altogether (suicide). Or we believe we're such dead weight to the tribe that they're better off without us (ancient humans are believed to have committed suicide, perhaps for this reason).

Sadly this is still a perspective for some, who unfortunately believe their family would be better off without them or even worse, they decide to take family members with them to relieve them of living in such a scary and hopeless world.

If you're feeling like this right now – check out the phone numbers below or seek help. Every awful time passes and statistics show only 10% of those who attempt suicide go on to make another attempt so there is hope. If you are relating to my 'back of the cave' analogy for depression and some kinds of anxiety – this simple visualisation may help.

Close your eyes and focus on breathing into your tummy for 10 breaths. Now imagine that you are looking at the entrance to a cave. Inside (where you are) it is safe, but dark and lifeless. Look through the opening into the light and life going on outside. What can you see? Take steps towards the entrance until you move through the entrance into the light and life. Feel the freedom and fresh air. Will yourself the courage to do this in your everyday life.

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800

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