Phenomenology as a Treatment for Depression and Anxiety
Phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life.
Posted Jun 07, 2016
Phenomena derives from the Greek meaning ‘things that appear’, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.
Pioneered by philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), phenomenology involves paying attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to the naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories, preconceptions, abstractions, interpretations, and emotional associations.
Unlike many other philosophical approaches, phenomenology is not a theory or set of theories, but a formal method for accessing bare human experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. It enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness.
Phenomenology is not quite the same as mindfulness. Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. In contrast, phenomenology is more explicitly outward-looking.
In the early 20th century, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) brought the method of phenomenology into the field of clinical psychiatry to describe and delineate the symptoms of mental disorder. This so-called descriptive psychopathology created something of a scientific basis for the practice of psychiatry, with Jaspers emphasising that symptoms of mental disorder should be diagnosed according to their form rather than their content. This means, for example, that a belief is a delusion not because it is deemed implausible by a person in a position of authority, but because it conforms to the definition, or phenomenology, of a delusion, that is, 'a strongly held belief that is not amenable to logic or persuasion and that is out of keeping with its holder's background or culture.'
Unfortunately, Jaspers and others rather overlooked or underplayed phenomenology's healing and protective potentials. Phenomenological endeavours such as writing, drawing, gardening, bird watching, and wine tasting remove us from our tired and tortured heads and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations. Phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life. In The Philosophy of Existence (1938), Jaspers himself described it as 'a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me'. To describe is to know, to know is to understand, and to understand is to own, to enjoy, and even, to some extent, to control. Like mindfulness, phenomenology is a balm not only for depression and anxiety, but also for boredom, loneliness, greed, selfishness, apathy, alienation, and any number of human ills.
If that were not enough, phenomenological practice also offers a number of other benefits and advantages. Wine tasters, for example, often say that wine blind tasting enables them to:
- set a standard of objectivity,
- test, stretch, and develop their senses,
- apply their judgement,
- recall old memories,
- compare their analysis with that of their peers,
- discuss the wine and learn about it, and about wine in general,
- forge meaningful human relationships, and
- imbibe the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.
In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, wine tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world.
For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.
Neel Burton is author of Growing from Depression and other books.