5 ways Stoicism can help ease anxiety
With busy lives, digital distractions, and a (thankfully) growing spotlight on mental health, anxiety might seem like a new phenomenon. Yet humans have been fretting for thousands of years. After all, anxiety is a natural response to perceived or real threats – releasing stress hormones so your body can fight or flee.
The question is, how do you cope when your worries won’t go away, and your mind is constantly concocting and responding to threats? While there’s no magic pill or potion that will eradicate anxiety (since it’s a natural part of our world and biology), the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism might just hold the key to getting a grip on anxious modern minds.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism was first taught in the streets of Athens in 300BCE. It later swept through Ancient Rome, which is why some of the most famous Stoic philosophers were Roman – like Seneca, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Unlike other philosophies, Stoicism inspires action over debate, with just a few core teachings that are easy to adopt. So what exactly can 2,000-year-old words of wisdom teach us about calming our minds?
Change the things you can control…
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” – Epictetus
Incredibly, 40 per cent of Australians think anxiety is a personality trait (rather than a mental health issue) and so can’t be treated. In reality though, it is possible to shift your anxious thoughts and behaviours.
For the Stoics, it starts with changing the things you can control (like your beliefs), and letting go of the things you can’t.
“The Stoics taught us that our emotions come from our beliefs,” says Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations. “We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control our beliefs.”
Zeno of Citium, the first-ever Stoic, said the philosophy is all about “living according to nature”. It assumes we all have the natural ability to use reason and wisdom to “act and think right”. In fact, acting morally and with integrity may be all you need to be calm and content.
“We can use reason and wisdom to respond wisely and virtuously to anything that life throws at us – even imprisonment or torture – and still be content,” Evans says. He points to psychologist Viktor Frankl who, reflecting on his time in a Nazi concentration camp, said: “Everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose our response.”
…And let go of the things you can’t
Epictetus, a slave-turned-Stoic also taught that you can overcome any adversity if you focus on the things you can control (your thoughts and beliefs), and let go of the things you can’t. Often, we label our experiences as ‘scary’ or ‘disastrous’, and then react emotionally to match that belief. Stoicism says you have the power to replace unhelpful beliefs with healthier ones. To put it another way, if you change your thoughts, you can change your emotions – and your view of the world.
Sound familiar? That’s because Stoic philosophy has inspired and influenced many modern therapies, including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). In fact, the Stoics were the pioneers of modern psychotherapy.
The anxious mind might find this hard to hear, because it loves to be in control of everything, but by trying to influence other people and situations, you suffer as a slave of circumstances allowing them to dictate how you think and feel about yourself and the world around you. If you can instead focus on your thoughts, values and behaviours, you can find some peace in letting go of everything else.
Both CBT and Stoicism help you recognise the basic beliefs that spark your emotions. You can then start to question those beliefs. For instance, you might believe “Everyone must like me, otherwise I can’t cope” but if you dig deeper, you can challenge that belief: “Why must everyone like me? Is my automatic emotional reaction reasonable or true? Can I accept myself even if others don’t?”
Good habits, good life
“Progress is achieved not by luck or accident, but by working on yourself every day.” – Epictetus
Think for a moment about your daily habits. If you’re like most people, you do them subconsciously. You’re on autopilot, following the same routine without ever reflecting upon it. To ingrain a new life philosophy, you need to take time each day to practice it. As Epictetus said, “It is difficult for a person to come to a new principle unless they should hear it every day and at the same time practice it.”
Daily tools and techniques, like meditation and journaling, can help you experiment with new beliefs and habits, until they become second nature.
For author Jules Evans, it took a full toolbox to feel free from the shackles of social anxiety. He repeated maxims for half an hour each day, kept a journal to track his habits and progress navigating social situations, practised daily relaxation, and cut down drinking. After just a few weeks of CBT and Stoicism, Jules stopped having panic attacks, although it took several years to replace his old anxious thoughts and habits with more helpful ones, such as self-acceptance: “The most important tip is that it takes time and practice to change our habits. You’ve got to keep at it – strengthening your mental and behavioural habits. And eventually it becomes automatic, ingrained, second nature.”
Evans likens it to preparing for battle: “If you train hard beforehand, you’re more likely to be ready when you’re in the heat of the moment. We need to train until our new ideas become automatic thinking and automatic behaviour. It takes a while, but keep track of your progress so that you can notice it.”
Focus on the moment
“Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.” – Seneca
When was the last time you let yourself just be? With no manic multitasking, no fear of the future, no replaying the past…just content and mindful in the moment?
Few of us are ever truly immersed in the present moment. As humans, we have an incredible ability to do something called ‘decoupled cognition’. It’s when you’re aware of what’s going on around you, but are also mulling over something that has or could happen (or vividly imagining or replaying interactions with others). For instance, you’re having chat with a friend while simultaneously running through your to-do list, or thinking about a fight you had with your partner.
Ruminating on the past or worrying about the future stops you from enjoying the moment. And it means you spend all your time and energy on things you can’t do anything about. As Seneca, another famous Stoic, wrote: “What is the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?”
You know worrying doesn’t solve your problems or change the outcome. It only adds to your woes – and means you end up suffering twice: first in your imagination, and again when you have to actually face the scary situation. By contrast, if you can bring your attention back to the moment (through mindfulness practices), you can quieten your mind and ease your suffering.
As American journalist and author George Horace Lorimer quipped, “Worrying is the one game in which if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness.”
Cut out catastrophising
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” – Epicurus
Of course, many times you guess wrong and your fears never come true, but that doesn’t always stop you from imagining, catastrophising, or exaggerating future crises. Seneca told a friend, “What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.”
Seneca and Stoicism remind us that while bad things may happen in the future, they aren’t happening to you now. “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact,” Seneca went on. “How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.”
It’s clear, then, that you must learn to spot and separate reasonable worries from irrational ones. If you focus too much on what might happen and spend your mental energy living in a perceived future, you deprive yourself of enjoying a full life now.
Love and compassion
Like Buddhism, Stoicism sees compassion as key to your happiness. We are naturally wired to live in harmony with others and act kindly. When you act according to that nature, you feel balanced and content.
Dennis D Tirch, psychologist and author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, writes that you can also activate empathy by “accepting your fallibility, your frailty and your suffering, all of which are essential aspects of your common humanity.” His book contains activities to help you connect with your compassionate self, and acknowledge and appreciate your anxious self.
Plato also looked to love to ease his troubled mind. By passionately loving and connecting with others (or with goodness or beauty), he believed we could launch out of our egotism and even connect with God. Modern science agrees, with several studies showing how volunteering enhances mental health and wellbeing.
Stoicism is often misunderstood. Many think it’s about being indifferent, or suppressing your emotions. Rather, this ancient philosophy actually teaches you to transform your thoughts, beliefs and emotions, just as psychotherapy does today.
The next time you’re fretting about the future – whether it’s a work presentation, a sick parent, or the fate of our planet – ask yourself one question: “Is this in my control?” If it is, focus on what you can do to navigate the situation. If not, just let it go. Then come back to the present and remember that while you can’t control everything that happens in life, you can choose how you respond. Over time, this simple Stoic practice could spark the shift from suffering and struggle to compassion and calm.
As Marcus Aurelius advised himself, “Concentrate every minute on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can, if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centred, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”
5 Stoic steps to ease anxiety
Ask yourself, “Is this in my control?” If it is, change it. If not, accept it without panic, anxiety or anger.
Practise helpful habits – and reinforce them with tools like journaling and meditation.
Focus on the present moment and practise mindfulness.
Avoid catastrophising and imagine the good things to come.
Practise compassion and devote time to helping others.
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