July 21, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Stoic Self-help || Stoicism ||

How to Deal with Worries

Chuck Chakrapani

Why do we worry?

We worry about many things: about the way we have lived our lives, about what is happening around us now, or what might happen in the future. Yet we may not even be clear as to the specific reasons we are anxious. What is the cause of our anxiety?

For example, let us say you know a lot about a subject. You can talk about it for hours with a friend. Yet if you are asked to give a public talk on the subject, you may find it hard to do. Why? Because when you speak in public, you want people to understand and applaud you. You want something that is not under your control. This is the reason we are afraid of public speaking, of performing in front of a large audience, or fumble in an interview to answer a question to which we know the answer. In such situations, because our focus is on something that is not completely under our control — such as other people’s approval or intentions — we become distracted from our task. We start worrying.

Worries are about the past or the future. They are about what has already happened or might happen in the near or distant future. In trying to control our past or the future, we indulge in unproductive activities. We review in our minds what we should have done and what someone else should have done. We keep imagining a future where we could run out of money or fall ill. All these useless activities use up our present moment, the only one in which we can be happy.

How to get rid of worries about the future

What if we lose our jobs? What if our spouse left us? What if we fall ill? What if we miss the flight? What if we don’t have enough money when we retire? All such questions are anxieties about the future. We may be anxious about something that is about to happen (‘what if I am late?’) or something that may happen in the distant future (‘what if I run out of money in my old age?’) Such anxieties rob us of our happiness in the present moment.

True happiness is…to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future.

— Seneca, On Benefits, 7.2.

How do we get rid of worries about the future? You may rightly argue that you should be concerned about the future. If you are not concerned about your old age, then you may not save enough. If you are not concerned about being late, you may not get to your meeting on time. Yes, of course, we need to be concerned about what is going to happen in the future, but we don’t have to worry about it. The most important thing we can do to avoid worries is first to identify what is and what is not under our control. Then take action on what is under your control and deal with what is not under your control as and when it happens. Let me explain this with two examples.

Example 1. You are worried that you may oversleep and miss an important meeting.

What is under your control here?

To maximize the chance of your not missing the meeting. You can get up a few minutes before it is necessary to provide for unforeseen delays. You can set two different alarms, so if you miss one, you have the other. You can gather all the things you need for the meeting so you will not forget anything at the last minute. Then, without feeling worried, you can have a good night’s rest.

What is not under your control here?

There is a small chance that both alarms will not go off. Or you may sleep through them. Or there may be an accident on your way and you may be delayed even though you started earlier. What then? Because these things are not under your control, they are nothing to you. Anxieties about what you cannot control can only make you feel miserable without doing anything to fix the situation.

Example 2. You are worried that you may run of money in your retirement.

What is under your control here?

You might want to increase your savings. You may want to invest your money as wisely as you can. You might want to curtail your unnecessary expenditures.

What is not under your control here?

In spite of doing all you can under your control, you may not have enough in your retirement. Then what? You don’t control it and you can do anything about it. Feeling miserable about it can only ruin your present without in any way changing the future. You don’t have to worry and you will see how to deal with the situation as and when it happens.

He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary

— Seneca, Epistulae Moralis 98


How to get rid of worries about the past

Worries about the past include what you should or should not have done, what should or should not have happened, things you have lost and so on. Unlike worries about the future, where there may be a component of action to steer the future in your way (which may or may not be successful), worries about the past are totally meaningless. You simply cannot change the past and it is 100% out of your control. This is so whether the past is one minute ago or fifty years ago. Whether broke an expensive vase you bought in an antique store ten minutes ago or whether you had a bad childhood fifty years ago, both are over and done with. Do you want to throw away your present and future to correct something that cannot be corrected or brought back? You might as well wish you had wings or be a superman. It is not going to happen. Once you realize the irrationality and uselessness of worrying about the past, you can stop throwing away your present by being anxious about the past.

Use reason to get rid of worries

It is not that we don’t know these principles, but we keep putting things off and don’t demand the best of our selves.

How long will you put off demanding the best of yourself? When will you use reason to decide what is best? You now know the principles. You claim to understand them. Then why aren’t you putting these principles into practice? What kind of teacher are you waiting for?

— Epictetus, Enchirdion, 51 (Chuck Chakrapani, The Good Life Handbook, Chapter 51)

The present moment exists for us to ‘enjoy the festival of life,’ as Epictetus called it. To make the best use of it, we need to get rid of our worries about our past and our future. Once we realize that there is nothing we can do about the past and we have done all that we can about the future, there is only one thing left: enjoy the present.