Home » Discard Anxiety with 5 Pieces of Ancient Stoic Wisdom

Discard Anxiety with 5 Pieces of Ancient Stoic Wisdom

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Anxiety is not out of your control. You can reduce it by changing the way you think. By using Stoic methods to logically breaking down your anxieties instead of repressing them. The ancient Romans relied on the power of Stoicism to navigate their complex, tumultuous society, and the ancient Stoic philosophers heavily influenced the development of modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Here are some ways to take control of your life using Stoic wisdom and thought.

You Control Your Own Mind 

The Stoics valued the power of the rational, logical mind above all other things, and considered it was important to question instincts. It was not a denial of their human nature. The Stoics believed that to be one with nature they must use what nature has given them — the power of their conscious mind.

Recognize what is in your control and what is not. Most of life is not in your control. You do not control the weather, nature, or other people. Instead, you control how you react to all these things, and you have the power to change your reactions. “Disturbance comes only from within from our own perceptions,” wrote second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Sit down and examine what you do have control over. Write it out. Organize it. If your job is horrible, can you change your job or move to a different company? If not, ask yourself, “Is it helpful to be constantly stressed about my coworker/boss/performance?” (It’s not.) Practice calm, logical detachment as if you’re an outside person examining someone else’s life.

Life is a constant state of flux. Your body is in a constant state of decay. Even Roman emperors like Marcus Aurelius had limits on their control. Recognize what you don’t control so you can focus on what you do control. Don’t expend energy worrying about what you don’t control. Protect your body by living well. Make society better by being good yourself.

You Can Only Do Your Best 

Instead of dwelling mindlessly on anxious thoughts, use your conscious power to make yourself a better person. Roman philosopher Epictetus asks of his followers, “Have you made any effort to understand what a good person is, and a bad one, and how each comes to be as he is?”

Your unconscious mind, with its animalistic instincts, made your anxieties to protect you, thereby keeping you in a protective bubble. To advance out of this bubble, you must fight instinctual fear with practiced, habitual logic.

You may even be aware that some of your anxieties are illogical, unhelpful, or both. It takes practice, however, to put aside anxious instincts built up over years and decades. With practice, they will change. Just as a trained musician instinctually knows how to move their hands, a practiced stoic instinctually knows how to avoid anxiety.

Don’t repress your anxious fears though. Pick them apart logically. You’ll find that they’re not as important as your emotions claim. Often they’re simply nonsensical. Remind yourself that your problems only exist as perceptions in your own mind.

Remember, you do not directly control others, and you can’t see into their minds. Only your own mind is under your control. If you do your best, which is all that anyone can ask of you, how can it matter what others think about you? 

Only the Present Exists 

The past exists only in our memories. The future exists only in our imagination. Plan for it as best you can, but do not get lost in speculation. The best you can do is focus on today.

Do not feel guilt or shame over your past actions, even if they were wrong. Take value from difficulty and failure. Every setback is a moment for a new approach. Every embarrassment teaches you how to act differently in the future. Tell yourself, “It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it — not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone,” suggests Marcus Aurelius.

Ask yourself, “what is the worst-case scenario?” Then logically plan how to deal with the worst case. If you’re anxious about work that’s due, and the worst-case scenario is the loss of a job or a failing grade, how do you avoid that fate? Not by fretting about it, but by buckling down and doing your best.

Spend your time studying, working, and planning. This exercise is applicable for social anxieties as well. Are you anxious about that date? Look up standard dating etiquette to be sure of your actions. Worried about that party? Plan conversation topics and a good exit strategy. Accept your anxious emotions and choose to ignore them, taking logical control instead.

Many people get concerned about minor embarrassments in crowds and other public places. But logically, what is the probable worst-case scenario? Will it hurt you physically? Will it hurt your friendships or your job? If anyone even notices or remembers you, how can that hurt you? You’re probably the only person who does remember, as everyone else is wrapped up in their own lives and anxieties.

You Can Change What You Want 

The theoretical Stoic wants nothing and therefore worries about nothing. Such a condition is likely impossible in reality, but it’s nice to aspire to the goal. You cannot be anxious about what people will think if you want nothing from them, not friendship, nor money, nor praise. You cannot be worried about your job or studies if you do not care how they turn out.

Couple this with what you have control over. You might want praise from others, but you do not have control over other peoples’ minds. You might want your country’s government to change, but unless you have the time to be active in political parties, your control is limited to voting and letter writing.

But don’t become complacent. For Stoic control to work, you must couple calm detachment with an intense focus on being the best person you can be. Concentrate on making yourself a good, hardworking, logical person. Then people will naturally think highly of you, or they have only themselves to blame.

All Will Be Forgotten 

If all else fails, consider the fatalistic side of Stoicism. Modern people try to avoid thinking about death as much as possible, but the Stoics believed a good person understands and accepts the inevitability of death and the minute amount of time they have on Earth.

There is no changing the past, and in the future is an unknowable, but inevitable event. The ultimate worst-case scenario is death, but death is inevitable and natural, so it is illogical to worry about it.

Accept what must be and focus on the present instead. It is all that exists. Everything else is an illusion. All those embarrassing events, if people even remember them, happened as they must. All those failures are an opportunity for learning. And in a few hundred years we will all be all dead and forgotten. Focus on what you can do today, and discard everything that doesn’t matter.


Sources:

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Gregory Hays. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Epictetus. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Trans. Robin Hard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Evans, Jules. “Anxious? Depressed? Try Greek Philosophy.” 29 June 2013. The Telegraph. telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/wellbeing/10146546/Anxious-Depressed-Try-Greek-philosophy.html.

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