Interview with Prof. Dr. Dr. Katharina Domschke, Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Freiburg.
When I met Katharina Domschke for the interview I met a cheerful, open and attractive woman who loves to laugh a lot. That is not necessarily what one associates with her field of research: Anxiety and depression.
Katharina Domschke holds a chair for psychiatry and psychotherapy in Freiburg. She studied medicine and psychology in Germany, Ireland and the USA and received her doctorate (Dr. med.) and PhD. After working in Bonn, Münster and Würzburg, she was appointed to Freiburg in 2016. Prof. Dr. Dr. med. Domschke has been awarded numerous national and international research prizes and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. In recent years, she has also devoted herself to the fear in art and has published a book on it in 2019: Die Angst in der Kunst – Ikonografie einer Grundemotion
Gitti Müller: Ms Domschke, you are a leading physician and researcher in the field of anxiety. Why have you now devoted yourself to the search for traces of fear in art?
Often fears are literally „unspeakably“ terrible. And that is where art comes in. Which medium would be better suited to visualise the various dimensions of fear, to make them vivid, to make them literally comprehensible and thus to make them directly tangible, than the visual or creative arts?
Katharina Domschke: In the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders, the word plays a major role – patients report on their symptoms, and in psychotherapy there is a lot of talk about the disease in addition to practical exercises. This is why psychiatry and psychotherapy are also among the disciplines of so-called „speaking medicine“. However, the dimension of seeing, looking, observing in the sense of „contemplative medicine“ is no less important in contact with patients. Often fears are literally „unspeakable“ terrible. And this is where art comes in. Which medium would be better suited to visualise the various dimensions of fear, to make them vivid, to make them literally comprehensible and thus to make them directly experienceable, than visual or creative art? Art can, so to speak, open our eyes to the fear within ourselves, in our counterpart and
Gitti Müller: How did you – very specifically – come up with the idea of writing a book about fear in art? What do you hope to gain from it in terms of the perception of fear in our society?
This – if you like – sharpening of our senses for fear and anxiety disorders should ultimately contribute to the prevention and destigmatisation of fear in our society
Katharina Domschke: With the topic of fear in my head, which is a clinical and scientific topic in my professional everyday life, I have repeatedly discovered works of art dealing with this topic during visits to museums and galleries over the last ten years or so. This has resulted in a growing virtual collection of over 70 paintings and drawings, sculptures and installations, which I have finally compiled in book form. Along the works of art and their art-historical embedding, the readers are introduced in this book to the different facets of fear. Starting with fear as a basic emotion in society, philosophy and religion, through the physical and cognitive symptoms of fear, the real, justified and vital fears and the anxiety disorders up to the pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatment of fear. This – if you like – sharpening of our senses for fear and anxiety disorders should ultimately contribute to the prevention and destigmatisation of fear in our society.
Gitti Müller: To what extent is fear a topic that concerns us all?
Katharina Domschke: First of all, fear is something quite normal and even vital: Fear enables the so-called ‚fight-, flight- or freeze-reaction‘ across all species, which ensures survival. But fear can also be used to do business, and fear can be misused as an instrument of domination. Fear can give wings, but it can also paralyse and become a disease. And finally: the fear of illness and death concerns us all.
Gitti Müller: Negative feelings are often hidden. Why is it important to accept and understand this strong feeling of fear?
Katharina Domschke: On the one hand – as already mentioned above – because fear is a decisive alarm system that warns us of dangers. And secondly, because a better understanding of fear, especially a fear that has perhaps already become independent or even tormenting, can help us to deal with it better and thus prevent anxiety disorders or get them under control quickly.
Gitti Müller: In art, feelings that are often unpronounceable can find expression. How can this help, or more specifically, how does psychiatry make use of this in the treatment of anxiety disorders?
Katharina Domschke: In psychiatry, art therapy is firmly established as a complementary therapy alongside pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. There, patients can express their feelings and even their fear in a creative way, which often allows a different approach than the spoken word.
Gitti Müller: What do you recommend to worried or anxious people as a prophylaxis against an anxiety disorder?
Also: „Don’t be afraid of fear“, i.e. don’t put yourself in the hands of your fear, don’t let the reins get out of your hands, avoid and don’t miss your life because of fear.
Katharina Domschke: Basically, a reasonable work-life balance, healthy sleep hygiene, regular physical activity and stable social structures are good measures for maintaining mental health. The same applies: „Don’t be afraid of fear“, i.e. don’t put yourself in the hands of your fear, don’t let your fear take the reins and don’t miss your life because of fear. Always face the feared situations or topics again and again and learn that you can cope with the fear. However, if this no longer works well, professional support is recommended, which can provide rapid and lasting help through psychotherapy and/or medication.
Gitti Müller: Many thanks for the interview.