How The Stoics Handled Anxiety

The stoics lived 2000 years ago and they were a group of philosophers that focused on how to live a good life. One important theme for developing a good life was how to deal with the inevitability of death, but more generally there was also an emphasis to develop certain ways of thinking so as to overcome emotions such as anxiety. Let’s take a closer look at what the Stoics had to say about our responses to anxiety and try and draw inspiration from their teachings today.

It is interesting that many people who don’t consider themselves particularly stressed will still often complain about irrational feelings of anxiety or anxious thoughts popping into their heads unexpectedly. When we feel this way it is easy for us just to dismiss these feelings as unimportant, yet the Stoics would have us take these feelings much more seriously.

In terms of anxiety or fear before a big event, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “Of all the things which are able to help a man, none is so powerful as advice.” So if we feel anxious about something we should seek out someone we think has wisdom and ask for their opinion on how to deal with our anxieties. We may also like to consider doing some research into historical accounts of people who seemed to be very calm and in control under pressure and try and pick up tips from them (in his book ‘The Obstacle Is The Way‘ Ryan Holiday describes several ways the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers dealt with anxiety).

Stoics also attach a lot of importance to the idea of living according to virtue, and they thought that people only ever did things for themselves if they felt certain that what they were doing was ‘virtuous’. So you could think about whether there is anything virtuous in your anxiety – perhaps by thinking about how anxious thoughts have popped into your head you can play a part in helping others not going through the same thing. Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about mental health issues which are very common but often ignored. In this way, you can do something helpful for others as well as yourself.


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The Stoics and the notion of premeditation

Another interesting Stoic idea was the notion of premeditation, where we imagine our own death from natural causes so as to remind ourselves that this isn’t something strange or alien and that we can cope with it. This might seem like a dark idea but when we consider how easy it would be to die suddenly in an accident this approach makes sense. We can all too easily forget our own mortality (when was the last time you thought about dying?).

However the Stoics didn’t just see anxiety as something negative or unhelpful, they also saw it as a sign that we were still alive and thriving! So perhaps instead of saying “I’m anxious” we could say “I’m excited!” (which ironically has a nicer ring to it). The important thing is not so much being able to overcome anxiety on some sort of permanent basis – rather realize that there is no need for the thoughts, feelings, or sensations that anxiety brings. This is the first step towards being able to let go of them when they come up.

They thought that by keeping a cool head people would be able to do the right thing at the right time without falling into ‘passion’ – this may be better translated as ‘feeling’. So if someone else tells us how anxious they are, rather than telling them not to worry or trying to calm them down, we could remind ourselves what the point of their nervousness is so as to remain level-headed.

Finally, another interesting idea suggested by some Stoic philosophers was that our anxiety relates to our own freedom of action – it’s almost as if anxiety is standing in between you and doing what you really want to do. So when we feel anxious we should remind ourselves that by feeling worried we are choosing not to act, and perhaps ask ourselves what it is exactly that is stopping us from doing whatever it is that we want to do.

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