Cool Course: Anxiety in Literature

“Anxiety in Literature” Students Consider Trauma and the Human Condition

“We live in a difficult, destructive, and oftentimes very limited, oppressive society. So how are you supposed to be healthy?” asks Cece Briggs. This isn’t, however, a question Briggs is directly answering in “Anxiety in Literature,” a class she is teaching in the BA in Liberal Studies on Antioch’s Seattle campus. That’s because she doesn’t believe that having feelings like anxiety or dread are signs that a person is unwell. “It’s often an appropriate response to have anxiety,” she says. “It’s a symptom of the larger piece, which is that we’re living in really perilous times.” 

The feeling stems from the capacity to conceptualize our own mortality—the awareness that our time is limited. The anxiety we feel may be compounded by social inequity, generational traumas, and the escalating effects of climate change. “The reality is that this is a human condition that we share,” Briggs says. “So reading about it, connecting to it in that way, helps us really feel part of something bigger—and that perhaps our suffering has some kind of meaning, as we bear it together.”

This connection and collective bearing is only possible because Briggs creates a supportive environment where students feel comfortable digging into these deep topics. By connecting to them on a personal level, students are better able to understand their own experiences with anxiety that’s different from what they might experience in a clinical setting. By studying anxiety through art, the hope is that students recognize that this is an almost-universal emotional experience. 

One student who took the course, Rachael Gray, felt that the course gave space to explore these topics safely. “Many of the reading selections of the course spoke to a number of the students on a deeply personal level,” she says. “At times, these authors put words to an individual’s lived experience in such a way that allowed us to feel truly seen in ways we have not felt prior.”

For Briggs, the larger project of “Anxiety in Literature” is to shift the framework of mental health from an individual person’s job to get better to look at why these feelings exist because of the world we live in. “The human experience is found in literature,” Briggs says. “That’s where we get the real psychology.”

Personal Connections to Complicated Subjects

Poetry and literature are where Briggs found respite herself when she was a child making her way through a difficult upbringing. She loved Anne Sexton, the Beat poets, and Sylvia Plath. Then she found the work of Adrienne Rich and Richard Wright. She was drawn to writers who used their writing to challenge the given structures and status quo of society in the United States. 

These writers also offered her a new vocabulary and way to think about things she didn’t hear people typically talking about—emotions. 

“I found great solace in reading about people’s struggles and the complex personalities that you find in literature,” she says. “I found it to be really healing for me as a young person, and it shows such a range of humanity that in our really materialistic, heavily reasoned culture, we don’t often explore.” Literature helped point out and explore the palpable loneliness and sense of cultural isolation created by living in a society that ignores existential concerns. 

Briggs went on to get her PhD in Depth Psychology and Mythological Studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she continued to dive into these questions. Depth Psychology looks at unconscious motivations for why people make choices and how their feelings develop through a cultural lens. Briggs studied everything from classical Greek plays to comparative religion, to opera. “We really looked at some of the core archetypes that run throughout these works and that we share with a lot of people across time on the planet.”

Archetypes is a concept developed by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the early 1920s that says that there are character types, story patterns, and settings that repeat and are often found across different cultures. Jungian Psychology and Depth Psychology use archetypes as a framework to understand the subconscious, both individually and socially. 

Cece brings up the idea of the collective unconscious in “Anxiety and Literature,” and she proposed the idea that recognizing these patterns can help us work through them. “We definitely look at existential angst both on an individual and collective level,” explains Briggs. “And we talk a lot about how healing it can be to read about anxiety in poetry and literature.”

What Would Anxiety Be Without Books?

Painting of a person with hands over their face and hair going in all directions.

As you might expect, a class called “Anxiety in Literature” relies on literary readings to begin to unravel these topics. For Briggs, the task of deciding what readings to assign required some guesswork on her part, as she had never offered this course before. 

“When I do a first class, it’s pretty experimental,” Briggs says. 

Briggs started with a syllabus that mostly featured contemporary writers, and then she supplemented that with articles about depth psychology. This created a conversation between the conceptual frameworks of psychology Briggs draws on and the artistic representations of anxiety. It also leaves her room to respond to students’ needs. 

Briggs recognizes that although life in 2023 may often feel like we’re living at an inflection point, these experiences are not new. “Things have been very apocalyptic for many people for the last 500-plus years,” she says. “And you could argue that we’ve been in apocalyptic conditions for forever.” She hopes to expand the syllabus of the class in the future to reflect this. 

Although students enjoyed many of the readings, there was an easily picked favorite out of all the work they looked at: the novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This book is rooted in Nigerian Igbo cosmology and religion. The main character is born carrying a multitude of gods inside and has to navigate how to exist in a world that calls them crazy. 

For Gray, the student, the book was a favorite because of the way it weaved these themes together. She explains that she found it to be “a beautiful multicultural perspective of gender identity and mental health.”

“The notion that we come in as this multiplicity of things that is a divine force, really resonated with the students,” Briggs says, “because we get pigeonholed and put in these very tiny boxes that don’t account for the larger breadth of our souls and our spirit.” Freshwater pushes against how psychiatric settings will pathologize people’s actions when they don’t fit into contemporary western expectations, even when they have spiritual basis in other cultures. This important story made students feel open to different lenses with which to view anxiety.

A Class That Connects on the Heart Level

But working through this material is also complicated. It’s important to Briggs that students feel supported in the classroom, especially when their own experiences overlap with the characters they’re reading about. This takes a lot of work, but Briggs approaches every class as a learning experience for herself, too, revealing her own challenges with anxiety. 

“I try to create a container that’s somewhat sacred,” she says. “I do share a lot of my own stuff, to make it so that we’re together. There’s not this hierarchical model going on between teacher and student.” 

Briggs’ classes have a tendency to court heightened emotional states. That’s a part of teaching towards topics that often go untouched in our day-to-day lives. She centers humbleness in her pedagogy as a way to stay attuned and present with students. 

“It’s a sensitive sort of climate,” she explains. Students often have “aha” moments where they connect to an unnamed trauma they’ve experienced, through the readings and discussion, in real time. “Students sometimes feel like they can get away with more if you take the hierarchical barriers down, but I feel like that’s all good, too.” Briggs says. “There’s a ton of growth: for me, for the students, and all of us together.”

It helps that there’s a shared expectation on how to bring oneself to the classroom. The BA in Liberal Studies requires that students take a Liberal Studies Seminar early in their time at Antioch. In this class students are given the tools to have respectful conversations, cultivate an open perspective, and how to listen to others. 

Rather than the commonly used term “safe space,” Briggs works to create a “brave space.” As she explains, “It’s not so safe that nothing actually gets talked about or happens, but brave in the sense that we’re willing to rub up against each other.” In her class students practice doing this in a way that’s positive and healing. “I think that Antioch students develop pretty high emotional literacy with each other,” she says. 

For Gray, the student, this has exactly been the case. “This course encouraged some of the most profound and intimate discussions I have had with my peers during my education here at Antioch,” she says. “Cece guided us through sensitive topics with genuine kindness and consideration for each of us as individuals.”