The Stoic Secrets of Eliminating Anxiety
Do you feel at times that anxiety is building up from within? How does this make you feel? Is your jaw clenched, are your muscles tense and your thoughts jumbled? Everyone, from time to time, feels anxious in one form or other. There is no magic bullet for anxiety but at times this is exactly what most of us desire.
In this post I’ll outline a way of dealing with anxiety which has worked for me. It’s a simple way of helping to manage this unpleasant state of inner turmoil and its associated emotions. This strategy may work for you too?
But perhaps the first thing to do is to try to define exactly what anxiety is?
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by nervous behaviour. This may be pacing back and forth, somatic complaints, and rumination. It is the unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as the feeling of imminent death. Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat. Anxiety is the expectation of future threat. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, uneasiness, and worry, usually generalised and unfocused. Perhaps this may be an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing? We react not just to immediate perceived “normal” dangers, but to thoughts and memories. It can feel like we are both anxious about nothing and everything and that the feelings will never go away. Anxiety is also often accompanied by muscular tension, restlessness, fatigue and problems in concentration.
Anxiety has its roots in the layering of further stressful events when we are already mentally and physically close to exhaustion. Like metal fatigue, something can snap. With help, an anxious person can understand what is happening. They can begin to see their ability to adapt to and challenge their thinking. It’s important to understand that the brain is capable of adapting and that no mental state is fixed.
For me, mindfulness is a way of bringing attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. You examine your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you. Over time it can help you enjoy life more and understand yourself better. I’ll explore this further in the next section.
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.
Practising mindfulness is a process, you don’t get the benefits from it right away. The brain learns to behave in certain ways, which means it can relearn different ways. The biggest obstacle is believing that it somehow won’t work for you, that is doesn’t apply to you. My advice is to try it and don’t fight it. Fighting anxiety only aggravates it. Accept and acknowledge the anxious state you are in. Over time mindfulness helps you feel more composed, no matter what or how you feel. It quells discomfort as well as enhancing tolerance to the inevitability of experiencing feelings.
Feelings, as we all know, are a by-product of accepting thoughts as factual interpretations of what we notice. Once we discover that mental imagery, thoughts, representations and decision making are only possibilities we construct for ourselves seems to be the main way we reassure ourselves. The more you focus upon your emotions, the more you feed them and the more entrenched they become. They bob around like a boat on a tempestuous sea, difficult to steer or control. We can accept the feeling, notice where it’s located and give it your attention. By relaxing and breathing the tension will go. Let go of the struggle and accept the present moment.
The goal of mindfulness is to interrupt automatic processes so you react less to incoming stimuli. Instead you accept and observe them without judgment. This mindfulness practice allows you to notice when automatic processes are occurring. You can then alter your reaction to be more of a reflection. Mindfulness allows you detach yourself and observe thoughts that trigger anxiety. The more we try to fight this rough sea of emotions, the quicker we become exhausted. So it’s important to go with the flow. You are not the emotion; the emotion flows through you. Mindfulness also allows you to focus on the present moment. After all, Seneca wrote:
What is the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?
We can choose to ruminate on the past. Likewise we can fret about the uncertainty of the future. Or we can choose to make the most of the present moment.
Another technique which I find useful it to put experiences and events into a wider context. I’ll explore this further in the next section.
Set Experiences into Context
When you feel anxious, find a quiet place and imagine the vast expanse of the universe. Marcus Aurelius told himself:
Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous… Expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe.
… anyone who aspires to make observations about mankind should look upon the human scene as from some lofty height …
Stoics have access to a visualisation technique known as The View From Above. Using it, you can choose to consider your place in the universe. We are one person in our family, our community, and the whole of humanity. Then view humanity from the perspective of one planet in the infinite immensity of space. Stoicism Today describes this as follows:
The ‘View from Above’ is a guided visualization aimed at instilling a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, and of understanding your role in wider community of humankind. You might decide to listen to the View from Above first thing in the morning, at a quiet point during the day (e.g. after lunch) or late in the evening, perhaps even last thing at night. It can be listened to sitting or lying down.
By using this method you can ask yourself what the worst possible thing to happen in this situation would be. Then ask yourself why this outcome would be so unacceptable. Chances are that your reason(s) can’t stand up to scrutiny and you can allow yourself to make peace with the potential outcome. Repeat this process with every potential disaster your mind can conjure up until you realise nothing is so terrible, when viewed in this way. This exercise allows you to realise that you can’t control the things that happen to you. I’ll explore this further below.
Beyond Your Control
You can’t control how other people act. The only thing you can control is your reaction. It is this reaction that matters. You can react to the same event with anxiety, or you can respond with calmness. It’s your choice to interpret events as indifferent. Epictetus wrote:
Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.
And from Marcus Aurelius:
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.
The majority of virtue lies in accepting that your only real power is to choose how he to act or respond to stimuli. See this stimuli as an external event that isn’t worthy of an unhelpful response. We don’t have control over externals. We only have control over our thoughts and beliefs. So, it’s here where we need to spend most of our time and energy. From Epictetus:
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are in our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquillity and outer effectiveness become possible.
So much of the feelings surrounding anxiety revolve around approaches to control. Anxiety involves frustration and fear at our lack of control over future external events. From The Discourses Book 2 Chapter 13.
When I see a man anxious, I say, “What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?” For this reason a lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power. Accordingly, where he has skill, there he has confidence. Bring any single person who knows nothing of music, and the musician does not care for him. But in the matter where a man knows nothing and has not been practiced, there he is anxious. What matter is this? He knows not what a crowd is or what the praise of a crowd is. However he has learned to strike the lowest chord and the highest; but what the praise of the many is, and what power it has in life he neither knows nor has he thought about it. Hence he must of necessity tremble and grow pale.
And from Seneca:
Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while, ‘Is this the condition that I feared?
Anxiety is so destructive partly because the fear of future suffering is greater than the actual suffering itself. As Seneca writes above, practicing hardship means you will be better prepared for actual hardship. You’ve experienced it before, and you know you are capable of handling it.
How do you control your anxiety? Do you have any tips, tricks or advice?