Originally published on September 8, 2021
What Does Occlumency Teach Us About Anxiety?
The last eighteen months have brought us many different things: fear, uncertainty, anxiety, opportunity, etc. And though I can’t speak for everyone, I know they’ve brought me something else as well — time. With countless hours saved not commuting to the office, I’ve kept myself entertained by picking up my favorite book series once again.
So, what is that series, you ask? None other than the great Harry Potter.
While I could certainly talk about the franchise itself for days, today, I want to focus on a particular subject from the fifth book in the series. That subject is Occlumency — an advanced form of magic that our half-blood hero learns and utilizes, to varying degrees of success, in “The Order of the Phoenix.”
In a nutshell, Occlumency is the way wizards guard their minds against outside penetration. You see, in the crazy universe that is the magical world, particularly skilled wizards — called Legilimens — can enter the heads of others; they can hear their thoughts, see their memories, and, craziest of all — they can implant ideas and stories. Thus, becoming an Occlumens means learning to defend against these often dark and cruel magicians.
In the fifth book (and I’ll do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum), we slowly come to realize that someone’s trying to get into Harry’s mind — though we’re not initially sure who or why. What only strengthens our suspicion of such a thing is that his headmaster forces his least favorite professor — Severus Snape — to start giving him Occlumency lessons.
As the days at Harry’s school (Hogwarts) roll on, he keeps having these strange, vivid, and intriguing dreams where he finds himself in a long, dark hallway with a door at the end. Each time he has the dream, he becomes more and more curious to know what’s on the other side of that door.
During one of his Occlumency lessons, professor Snape sees these dreams in Harry’s head and realizes “The Boy Who Lived” isn’t just allowing them to enter his subconscious — he’s also enjoying them. As Snape warns, regardless of where they’re are coming from — his own mind or that of a Legilimens — Harry’s refusal to push them away is not a good thing; it’s wasting both of their times and giving Harry’s arch-nemesis (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) an opportunity to slide on in and wreak havoc.
Again, though I don’t want to spoil anything for those who’ve yet to finish book five, I will say that Snape ends up being right; someone actually is trying to weasel his or her way into Harry’s mind, and the results of that weaseling prove quite disastrous indeed.
Now, at this point, I’d imagine you’re probably thinking, “Harry Potter’s cool and all, but what the heck does Occlumency have to do with mental health?” Assuming you are, I’d say that’s a great question.
Though the link is never explicitly made in the books, I see Occlumency as a metaphor for protecting our minds from dark thoughts, fears, and anxiety — the skill that helps all of us become psychologically unshakeable.
For, when you think about it, our fears of the future aren’t all that different from Legilimens; both of them try to sneak their way into our minds and change our view of reality. Moreover, both of them do so with the worst intentions — either to make us feel terrible or to control us altogether.
We’ve all experienced this sort of thing before, first-hand; failure-related worries have pierced all our psyches and stolen our focus ahead of important and uncertain events such as midterm exams or public speeches. These worries begin as just one or two thoughts but quickly grow into something much worse if left unchecked.
What makes these fears especially tricky is just how gripping they are. Sometimes, they’re so powerful we struggle not to give them our full attention, even if they are related to things we’d never willingly choose to consider. The reason behind that power has everything to do with how our nervous systems operate; they purposefully obsess over perceived threats so they can determine how to eliminate them and bring us back to safety as quickly as possible.
Thus, they see the pain and fallout associated with us flunking a major exam and say, “Woah — massive danger here. I need to figure out how to get rid of it as soon as possible.”
Though this logic is highly effective in life-or-death scenarios, such as when we’re standing fifty feet from a bear, it’s far less helpful when we’re contemplating stressful, though non-life-threatening, things off in the distance. Since we often can’t address the latter kinds immediately, our brains see these events, throw up their hands, and say, “Well, if we can’t do something about them right now, then what the heck are we supposed to do?”
Though it might sound a little crazy, sometimes, the answer we come up with is to stick to our default psychological patterns — to obsess over the outcome of these events until they come to pass. As you can likely guess, or as you’ve probably experienced before, that’s not only a pretty terrible strategy — it’s also one that causes us immense anxiety and suffering along the way.
But that’s where Occlumency comes back in. For, when we stop and think about it, we realize our nervous systems aren’t running the entire show here; we have some influence over how we react to and feel about specific situations on the horizon as well. And that means, when we see potential danger and fear off in the distance, we can flex our wizarding skills and say, “Hey, Legilimens, thanks for the thoughts. They’re certainly tempting, but I’m going to focus on other concerns. After all, I’d much rather feel at peace than anxious today.”
And while that’s not always an easy conclusion or realization to make, we can get to it quicker by asking ourselves a pair of critical questions: “Is what I’m worrying about right now something I can actively do something about? Or am I just trying to convince myself I can as I ruminate about it endlessly?”
The answers we give to those questions help us create more constructive, less stressful approaches to our fears. For example, in the case of our big midterm exam, such questions make us realize the only thing we can do about our fear of failure (besides continue to worry) is put in more time studying. Thus, our options in the situation are as follows: either we pick up our books and prepare ourselves further for the test, or we apply our Occlumency skills and shut our fears out as best we can ahead of it.
The ways we can do the latter are almost endless. For example, we could go to the gym and immerse ourselves in a mind-freeing, strenuous workout, sit down and meditate for twenty minutes, or dance around the house as we pump ourselves up by playing our favorite songs. For more of these ideas, make sure to check out my first book — “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.”
No matter which approaches we choose and put into action, however, the bottom line is this: Our fears want to get into our minds, and it’s our job to prevent them from doing so. If we don’t, we risk subjecting ourselves to intense levels of anxiety for minutes, hours, or even days on end. And that’s something that none of us want to experience.
And while our worries can be remarkably gripping and alluring at times, we must remember: In our relatively safe and modern world, that allure usually isn’t the mark of something that truly needs our attention but a sign that we’re dealing with a great Legilimens. If we don’t close our minds to his or her tricks, as well as the everyday equivalent of long-hallway-laced dreams, we may find ourselves opening the door to an anxiety-filled room that isn’t so easy to escape.
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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021