Stoicism As An Ally Against Anxiety by Fidel Beserra

I live with a clinically diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder. This means that I constantly suffer  from exaggerated or irrational worries about many different things in my days. Nevertheless, I  lead a reasonably normal and productive life. In this article, I want to discuss Stoic philosophy’s  role in this achievement. 

Anxiety is a natural, and from an evolutionary point of view even beneficial response to threats in our surroundings. It helps us to stay aware and sharp under important or dangerous circumstances. In the right amount, it’s an important mechanism to keep us safe. However, when  the feeling of anxiety grows overwhelming and (every so often) irrational, it becomes a serious  trouble, in the form of an anxiety disorder. 

An anxiety disorder, in general, is an infirmity that affects individuals by putting them in a painful state of restlessness and apprehension. The cause of this problem, according to the bulk of  scientists, is mostly genetic. External factors, however, could worsen an existing scenario, or trigger the symptoms in the first place. Taking this into consideration, we can correctly infer that anxiety  plays out in our emotions as well in the physical structures of our brain, with both elements mutually influencing the other. This is the reason why anxiety treatments both incorporate psychotherapeutic measures and employ of medications, who aim to stabilize the  concentration of certain chemicals in the brain. 

There are specific types of such condition (although common traits naturally can be found among  them).The most prominent ones are: 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Of course, This one I know very well. It causes, as  indicated by its name, a general and continuing feeling of anxiety induced uneasiness.  Symptoms include recurrent worries about various aspects of one’s life, exaggerated fear  over the future and widespread overthinking over possible, or even impossible scenarios.  There may also be physical manifestations like fatigue and muscular ache.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This specific condition causes persistent and mostly  disturbing intrusive thoughts on people affected. Intrusive thoughts are constant and  uncomfortable thoughts about violent and/or disturbing scenes involving, frequently, the individual affected and his loved ones. Intrusive thoughts also come in the form of  obsessions over perfection and symmetry in daily activities, causing the patient to behave  unnecessarily methodically. These unwanted thinkings, not surprisingly, can lead to  anxiety, depression and panic attacks. 

Panic Disorder: Speaking of panic, here it is. This condition is characterized by sudden and  repetitive panic attacks. Panic attacks are somewhat like anxiety attacks on steroids. They come out, sometimes unexpectedly and cause intense fear, with prominence of powerful physical symptoms like racing heartbeat, severe chest pain and short breath. A panic  disorder also includes the very fear of suddenly falling prey to such an attack, which places  a heavy burden of constant fear and paranoia on the person affected. 

Social Anxiety Disorder: This other one is characterized by severe fear of social  interactions. It makes its victim avoid being in public, over real dread of being put into  shame or embarrassed somehow. In certain cases, it causes the individual to avoid pretty  much any human interaction at all. This self-isolation makes the situation even worse, by  aggravating the symptoms of anxiety and leading to possible depression. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): After a shocking or stressful event, some people  may develop symptoms like severe and constant fear, episode flashbacks, troubled sleep,  vivid nightmares, etc. This is a completely normal scenario, however, if these symptoms  become too persistent and disruptive, then, it is a case of PTSD. And it is not uncommon that such a dramatic state of affairs leads a person towards depression, alcoholism and  drug addiction. 

As might be expected, the severity of symptoms vary for each person, but at the very least, being troubled with a pathological anxiety is very unpleasant. Such is the case of around 285 million  people in the world. And not surprisingly, this number is increasing, with the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences strongly contributing to this phenomenon. 

The social, political and economical chaos caused by the virus, as well as the millions of lives taken by it worldwide, have struck terror in the hearts of many people, especially those who were  already suffering with some mental health condition. Social distancing, although an extremely  necessary action to contain the spread of the virus, did not help either, as the feelings of loneliness  and isolation have grown stronger because of it.

All of this deterioration of mental condition has been widely reported on by the media and by specialists, with some studies even indicating a significant escalation in the number of suicides. This recent and saddening situation, along with  the overall and lately rapid technological and comportmental changes in human societies have  been making our lives more connected, more competitive, but also, unfortunately, more stressful.  So, more than ever, mental health problems must not be underestimated, as it is a very serious  issue and must be dealt as such, both by government and society. 

Well, after that short clarification on anxiety, it is time to dig deeper into myself. Since I  remember, I have always been an anxious person, but only moderately anxious. It was something  that did not interfere much until personal traumas, a few years ago, made this moderate anxiety skyrocket into real despair. And the situation intensified drastically as the months passed. I had  constant and continuous fear of countless things that in some cases, rationally, I knew would never happen. Yet, this very fear wreaked havoc on my mind. The situation exacerbated to the  point that sometimes even breathing was difficult. I lost several professional, educational and  personal opportunities because of this circumstance and more than once I thought about putting an end to my misery, but ultimately I made the decision of coming back to life. 

After I obtained my clinical diagnosis, I took what I believed to be the first and most crucial step:  Acceptance. I had to acknowledge that I did have a mental health issue and that I could no longer  run away from this fact. So, I decided to face the problem and live my life to the best of my  capability, despite of it. Then, I started a slow process of cutting off toxic habits and adopting new  and positive ones. One of these newfound habits was reading Stoicism. I’ve always liked to read,  so I thought of something to bury myself in that could potentially soothe my anxiety. As a result,  after some research, I decided to try the ancient Stoic philosophy. 

Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around the 3rd century B.C. It  is focused on the notion that, to achieve happiness, one must live a virtuous, meaningful and  tranquil life. And to attain such a feat, it is crucial to realize that we should not dwell on things we  have no control of. Stoic philosophers believed that problems and struggles are as only as  powerful as we allow them to be. Thus, if ‘Ataraxia’, a state of placid imperturbability, is achieved,  nothing from the outside can distract us from the path of cultivating the virtues of courage,  temperance, justice and wisdom, which are the keys to an existence according to our rational  nature. 

I began my studies reading the three most important Stoic authors: Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Within little time, I caught myself fascinated with how applicable to my own life Stoicism  was. So, I started trying to adopt the Stoic ethos in my everyday routine. I initialized this  endeavor first adjusting my mindset, accepting the fact that my suffering was not mine or anybody’s fault, but merely the natural course of Providence. According to the Stoics, Providence is  the main principle of the very existing reality, the breath of life that coordinates everything that  exists, including, of course, our trivial human fate. And as such, there is no use in (like I did) regretting things one has no control over.

After that, I gradually initiated seeking to embrace the strategy of only minding the situations that were really under my control, trying as much as possible to let  go of unnecessary worries about anything else. And, last, I also commenced the process of  becoming a more moderate, just, and rational man. Some reflections helped me a lot in this  process, and I think that they can help others as well, so I would like to share them. Here they go: 

Memento Mori

Translated from Latin, it means, “remember that you must die”. This is a very Stoic contemplation that seems depressing at first, but if it is looked at closely, it reveals itself  as actually motivating: Remember that you must die, so that you can live. Live a life of virtue,  explore all your potential, do not postpone your endeavors and hold nothing back, as you  will certainly die, maybe as soon as later today. This is also a reminder that, no matter how  rich, powerful or famous you are, you will meet your irremediable fate like everyone else. So,  in such case, there is no use in seeking endless wealth, as you may not get the chance to  enjoy it as much and, surely, you will not take it with you on your path down the shores of  the afterlife. Also, (this one especially aided me) there is no point in wasting time  with small things, like what people are thinking about you, for example, because in the grand scheme of things, these futilities mean next to nothing. Your time is very limited, so use it to  deal with meaningful things. 

And on the pedestal these words appear: 
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: 
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.  

Excerpt from ‘Ozymandias’, a poem by Percy B. Shelley.

Premeditatio Malorum

This is meditation upon bad things in advance. In every important thing you do, think  about every detail that could possibly go wrong, and use it to better manage not only your  expectations, but also the difficulties themselves, if they do choose to appear. This thought worked great for me during my recovery, and still works as great now, if I become too anxious about my future projects. My anxiety is capable of making me think that if my goals  do not work, then, they are doomed forever. When such thought comes, I usually stop and  think about all things that could really not work according to my plans, and in all cases, I see  that all these adversities are not as terrible as anxiety portray them, and that they could be  resolved without further drama. So, remember that there is a good chance of things going  wrong with you, so it is better to know what these things are and their real potential of  doing harm. Prepare yourself for defeat so you can have a better chance of winning. 

Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.

Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 13

Make an opportunity out of a disaster. As addressed earlier in this article, the only things you really control are your thoughts and actions. So, give up trying to make the world bend the knee to your will. The flow of life goes as it goes and there is nothing you can do about  it. For an anxious individual like myself, controlling every aspect of the things that happen to  me, would be paradise, however, fortunately or unfortunately, such power does not exist.  Then, instead of being bitter if something bad happens to you, create something good out of  it.

For example, if a person you loved died, take your time to grieve (Stoics, contrary to what  some believe, are not against displaying emotions), but after that, use this misfortune to  your favour. Practice and meditate upon your own mortality (as discussed earlier) and the  transitoriness of life. This should help you perceive death more naturally, making you  mentally stronger. I went through this exact situation, and making out of a tragic event a  valuable lesson made carrying such a heavy load an easier task. 

With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them 

Epictetus, Enchiridion 10

Of course, the change I went through is neither fast nor easy. It would not be for a normal person,  let alone one with a burdensome anxiety disorder. However I made some major progress on  dealing with my anxiety over the years, with Stoicism being a key factor on this change for the  better. Of course, getting into therapy, starting regular exercises, changing my diet and sleeping  patterns, and making new, positive and uplifting bonds with people around me were also very  important. But the reality is that I am not, and I believe I will never be a perfect Stoic, if there is  such a thing, because sometimes, I do still struggle with uneasiness, fear and anxiety. Yet, such  small setbacks do not affect my will in view of the fact that this is absolutely normal as I carry a  medical issue and its treatment takes time and patience. 

And when it comes to Stoicism beyond just me, I obviously know every person reacts differently to  anxiety and other mental health conditions and that my personal experience does not function as  a global parameter on the subject. Yet, I firmly believe that Stoicism can be a powerful tool against many people’s mental suffering, and I have good reasons to believe so. For example, Cognitive  Behavioral Therapy, a very effective type of psychotherapeutic treatment, is heavily influenced by  Stoic thinking.

This method is focused on changing the way a patient deals with struggles,  addressing the fact that we are in control only of the way we respond to life events, not the events themselves. By assuming this, one is capable of tackling difficulties more rationally and efficiently,  getting rid of toxic and negative thoughts on the process. And in addition, there are countless  studies and essays analyzing how Stoicism plays a role in mental health patient’s improvement,  highlighting Stoicism’s potential to help attenuate mental disorders. 

So, if you are faced with ailments such as anxiety or depression,in addition to appropriate medical  treatment, give Stoicism a try. If you are not, give it as well. No matter your mental, social or  financial condition, Stoicism is, literally, for everyone. This becomes very clear if you research the  history of two of the most influential Stoic authors, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. The former was  the ruler of the Roman Empire, and the most powerful man of his time and the latter, a crippled  slave. And naturally, Stoicism is not just a way to cope with pain, but also, as stated before, a way of life. Hence, studying Stoic philosophy will most certainly help you become a better and wiser  human being. 

So, if you wish to proceed on the Stoic path, I advise that you start by reading the classic works.  My personal recommendations are Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca’s Letters, and Epictetus’s Enchiridion (or handbook). After this initial and preparatory reading, the world of Stoicism will be  all yours to explore. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I did. And to conclude, I would like to  share a favorite quote of mine, one that stands out as a great advice today as much as when  firstly written. 

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm and around it, the  seething waters are laid to rest 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4, 49

Fidel Beserra is a Brazilian freelance writer and translator. He currently studies accounting in college, although his real passion is philosophy, where he finds the answers to his disquiet. He is also an aspiring entrepreneur and an amateur musician

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

24 thoughts on “Stoicism As An Ally Against Anxiety by Fidel Beserra”

  1. One of the best articles I’ve read on this site, has inspired me to take on some of these reflections. Thank you Fidel!

    1. You’re most welcome, Adrian. Thank you for your kind words. I hope that these reflections help you in some way.

      Take care and best wishes, my friend.

  2. What a well written article, thank you. I am lucky enough to be (so far) fairly mentally robust but I live with someone who suffers with both anxiety (PTSD) and depression. I am new to Stoicism and have already wondered how Stoicism fits with mental health issues but your portrayal has gone some way to answering that. Thank you.

    1. Hi, Alan. Thank you for your comment. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to help you . I also hope that you find the answers you need to better deal with the struggles of your loved one.

      Stay strong, dear friend.

  3. Kia Ora from New Zealand Fidel. Thank you so much for your article outlining some of the ways in which your study of Stoicism has supported you in coping with anxiety.
    My add on is that when you say practicing premeditatio gives you a better chance at winning – when winning is defined as exercising virtue Not achieving a desired outcome, or avoiding an adverse outcome.
    Take care,
    Leo

    1. Hi, Leo. I used a more common sense definition of ‘winning’ to deliver a clearer message. Nevertheless, I mostly agree with your view on the subject.

      Thank you and stay safe, my friend.

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