April 8, 2020 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How To Deal With Anxiety
Two basic reasons we are anxious
Why do we become anxious at all? Why do we become distressed? Why are we anxious about the future? If we look at our problems closely we see that all our anxieties fall into one of the following two categories.
- We want what we cannot have such as a body that never gets sick, a future that is always secure, a job that is guaranteed for life, and a reputation that is forever assured.
- We try to avoid what we cannot escape such as old age and death.
Most of our anxieties, large or small, fall into one of these two categories: anxieties about getting things we don’t want and anxieties about not getting things we do want.
How to deal with anxiety about things we want but may not get
Things we want are desires, large and small. We are anxious about our body, our looks, our possessions, our future, and other people’s opinions. We look for financial and other forms of security. We want things to go our way. Then we become anxious because we know that we don’t control them because they are external to us. If we did control them, then we wouldn’t become anxious about them, because they would be internal to us. So, it is the nature of our desires and aversions that is causing our anxiety. Desperately needing something external is a sure recipe for anxiety.
"Whenever I see someone anxious, I ask, “What does this person want?”. Unless you want something not under your control, how can you be anxious? When you play a musical instrument by yourself, you have no anxiety. But when you enter a music hall, even if you have a fine voice and can play the instrument well, you become anxious. You not only want to sing well but want to be applauded by others, which is not under your control. — Epictetus Discourses 2.13 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Choices, Chapter 2)"
The best way to get rid of the anxieties of this nature is to train ourselves to moderate our desire for anything we don’t control. We seek external things such as money, fame, and health that are not under our total control. There is nothing wrong in preferring these things over poverty, obscurity or disease. However, the most important thing to realize is that externals are not under our total control. When we start feeling that we can’t be happy without them and become desperate about getting them, we become anxious because we know that we may not get them. Once we start reminding ourselves, “Yes, we prefer health, wealth, reputation, etc., but we are not desperate about them”, then we can be poor, have health problems, and yet be happy. As Epictetus put it:
"Show me someone who is sick and yet happy; in danger and yet happy; condemned to exile and yet happy; lost his reputation and yet happy. Show him to me, by the god, I long to see a Stoic. — Epictetus Discourses 2.19 (Chuck Chakrapani Stoic Choices Ch. 19)"
How to deal with anxiety about things we don’t want but may get
Things we don’t want are our aversions. Things we are averse to may include not just broccoli (just kidding) but our major fears such as illness, poverty, old age, and death. If we stop being averse to things, there is nothing that we get, even if we don’t want it, that will make us anxious.
The best way to get rid of anxieties of this nature is to train ourselves not to be averse to anything we don’t control. Whenever you are averse to something that you don’t control, tell yourself, “This is nothing to me. I have the resources to deal with anything that comes my way.” Apply this to everything you are anxious about, such as poverty, what other people think of you, disease, and even death. How can you be anxious about being poor, if you don’t fear poverty?
- How can you be anxious about what people think about you if you don’t care about their opinion?
- How can you be anxious about death, if you don’t fear it?
- How can you be anxious about ill health, if you don’t fear it?
As you keep eliminating aversions to things you don’t control, you’ll see this type of anxiety starting to fade.
How to be free of anxieties
Now that we know why we are anxious and what to do about it, let’s listen to Marcus Aurelius.
1. Know that you already have all the resources you need to face anything that comes your way. What is outside our control is neither good nor bad. It is the way things are. You don’t need things that are outside of your control to be happy. There is no point in fighting reality because it always wins. There is nothing to be anxious about because we will always have the internal resources to cope with whatever reality hands us.
"Don’t let the future worry you. You will meet it — if you have to — with reason, the same resource you use now to deal with life. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Bk. 7.8 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 7.8)"
2. Know that avoiding anxieties is easier if we stop dwelling upon them. Don’t be too averse to things. When we are averse to things that we don’t control, there Is no guarantee we can avoid them. This makes us fearful. Our fears become our anxieties. So, don’t dwell on your aversions.
"Is the cucumber bitter? Throw it out. Are their briars in your path? Go around them. That’s enough. Don’t add, “Why are such things in the world.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Bk. 8.50 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Ch. 8)"
The cause and cure for anxiety are self-evident. But to get rid of them will take practice.