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Philosophies of Anxiety

Session B: July 20 - July 30, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Nancy Lee Roane

The National Education Association estimated in March 2019 that today’s teens are the most anxious ever. “Philosophies of Anxiety” will explore why that may be by surveying different cultural and historical conversations surrounding anxiety, as well as techniques for treating anxiety such as mindfulness and gratitude. The class will challenge students to put today’s conversations in a broader historical and cultural frame through a research project and presentation about theories of anxiety (what causes it, how to resolve it) from different time periods and geographical locations.

Learning Outcomes

  • To gain insight into today’s leading mental health concern for young people
  • To articulate cultural and historical differences in perspectives on mental health
  • To analyze texts from various disciplines and time periods (philosophy, psychology, literature, religious studies)
  • To empower students to think critically about their own relationships with social media and societal standards
  • To expose students to areas of research, critical thought, and possible careers within the areas of psychology, counseling, community work (social work, etc.), and the humanities

Possible Assignments

Individual Research Project
Students will choose a time period & geographical location, religion, or cultural concept (options provided by the instructor – for example, Daoism, 19th century women’s hysteria, 1960’s American counterculture) and research how anxiety is defined and treated in that moment or tradition. Students will write a short paper (1 page) and craft a presentation for the class. Students must cite 2-3 appropriate sources in MLA format.

Daily Gratitude Journal
Students will keep a gratitude journal for the duration of the course (not to be turned in). At the end of each week (day 4 and day 9) students will submit a reflection about how the practice has affected them.

Reading Discussions in Small Groups on Day 3, 5, 7
Students will read pre-assigned readings (readings vary) and on the assigned day, will discuss readings in small groups and produce an in-class project (a lesson plan, an argument, and public health recommendations)

Day 1: Introduction to Module & Basic Definitions
Student introductions and module overview
Basic Definitions of Anxiety Today
Popular definition vs. medical definition
Symptoms, signs, causes
Genetics & contexts (cultural and environmental causes, chemical and hormonal causes)
Getting Help
Activities: read short article on anxiety in the United States today, think-pair-share with neighbor; create mind map about current cultural understanding of anxiety

Day 2: Pre-Modern Anxiety
Historic and cultural differences in defining anxiety
Ancient Greek and Latin philosophies of anxiety
Eastern traditions overview: Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism
Overview of Research Project: Finalize choices and discuss finding sources
Activities: in small groups, read fragments from pre-modern medical and literary sources (Stoicism, Lao Tzu) and identify similarities and differences from contemporary discourse; internet scavenger hunt to find possible sources for research project

Day 3: Buddhism and Mindfulness
Buddhist theory of suffering (dukkha)
Worry and the Ego
Mindfulness practices: how they became popular today
Meditation, breathwork
Activities: practice brief meditation, discuss assigned readings in small groups (see above in assignments), create a short mock lesson to teach and share mock lesson with other classmates. Readings will be from: Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa, The Tao of Pooh, Wendell Berry

Day 4: Anxiety and Modern Technology Part 1
Industrialization and Anxiety
Factory life, urban growth, and the rise of caffeine
Late 19th century: return of anxiety in main discourse
Artistic and cinematic depictions of anxiety
Activities: view clips from Man with a Movie Camera (dir. Diego Vertov, 1929) and closely analyze one scene in pairs; view and analyze paintings, e.g. Edvard Munch, George Grosz, and Italian Futurism

Day 5: Existentialism
World War Two and the Search for Meaning
Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?
Two responses: Heidegger and Sartre, or Acceptance versus Free Will
Viktor Frankl: A survivor’s overcoming of anxiety in the concentration camps
Activities: discuss assigned readings in small groups (see above in assignments), create a short paragraph summarizing the theory you read and discussing if it would work for today’s teenagers. Readings will be from: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Day 6: Anxiety and Modern Technology Part 2
Causes of Anxiety Today
2008 Financial Crash and increasing social inequalities
Microaggressions, Racism, and Sexism
Social Media Use
Activities: Read and discuss a short article about anxiety today. In a small group, discuss theories and practices for treating anxiety from the prior weeks and come up with a set of public health recommendations for your fellow high school peers. Note the inspiration and any cultural or historical differences that would need to be taken into consideration in following the guidance

Day 7: Somatic Theories
Anxiety and the Body
Trauma theories
Sympathetic versus parasympathetic nervous systems
Evolutionary benefits of anxiety and worry
Physical practices such as exercise, deep breathing
Activities: In a small group, discuss assigned reading (see above assignment) and brainstorm figures in films, novels, or TV shows that show examples of trauma-induced anxiety (such as Harry Potter’s scar burning, etc.). Readings will be from: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Day 8: Neuroplasticity & Gratitude
Anxiety and the Brain
Understanding serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol
Theories of Neuroplasticity: you can change your brain!
Gratitude and Neuroplasticity
Positive Psychology: the role of grit and friendship
Understanding Anxiety Disorders and Medication: what are SSRIs?
Activities: Read short article on gratitude journaling and the brain; discuss and reflect on our practice of gratitude journaling during the module; workshop/edit short papers in pairs

Day 9: Final Presentations and Looking to the Future
Short Student Presentations: definition and treatment of anxiety in their chosen time period or cultural tradition
Discussion of career paths that work with psychology: therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists, community workers (social workers, chaplains), human resources and consulting
Discussion of career paths in philosophical, psychological, and literary research