A guide to irrational anxiety and how to escape it
Born a slave in ancient Turkey, Epictetus made vast contributions to the fields of philosophy and literature later in his life. He taught many important lessons, often declaring philosophy as a way of life rather than a theoretical discipline.
Epictetus studied philosophy with the permission of his owner, allowing him to gain respect as he ascended into adulthood. During his older years, he composed several famous writings surrounding peace of mind, happiness, and most importantly, fear.
Epictetus held that all external events are beyond our control, even if that might not always appear to be the case. In order to be truly happy, we must learn to calmly and dispassionately accept whatever happens to us.
In his words,
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
Happiness doesn’t exist outside of ourselves, but rather in our thoughts and beliefs about that which happens to us. Fear is the root of almost all of our pain, and freedom from fear, or resistance to it, is critical to satisfaction in our work, lives, and relationships.
Freeing ourselves from anxiety, however essential, isn’t always easy. Where do we start?
Finding the Right Kind of Fear
In spite of our thoughts, striving for fearlessness might not always be the wisest course of action to take. Many great things can come from fear, and fear is often a strong motivator when it comes to doing things well. It allows us to identify that which is important to us and worthy of our efforts.
The problem, therefore, isn’t necessarily fear itself, but rather irrational fear. To identify these unreasonable anxieties, we have to first ourselves an obvious yet crucial question: What actually is it that we’re afraid of? What lies at the core of our fear?
Of course, our direct experience of fear is usually obvious and characterized by shaky knees or sweaty palms — but what’s underneath all of that?
Perhaps it’s fear of rejection. Loneliness. Never reaching our full potential. Illness. Death. Any one of these core fears may come out in a different way, like worrying about how our hair looks or panicking about the stomach ache we woke up with this morning, but underneath all of that often lies something more tangible, like fear of life-threatening disease.
According to Stoic philosophy, so long as those central fears persist, we can never truly be free. We will always be pushed or pulled by some vice or another, persuaded by our doubts to act in discordance with whatever it is we truly long for.
The solution I’d like to offer isn’t that of a total absence of fear, which is impractical and probably unhealthy. Rather, what we’re striving for is a reimagining of fear — a reframing of our experience of it.
Making Sense of Fear
To quote Epictetus once more,
“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.”
Making sense of our fears is the first step towards freeing ourselves from their grip, and the first step towards making sense of fear is to recognize which of our phobias are rational and which are wholly unreasonable.
Some examples of sensible fears are the fear that you will waste opportunities given to you, the fear of looking back on your life and regretting that which you didn’t do, the fear of not living true to your values, amongst others.
Irrational fears, on the other hand, are usually comprised of things that we cannot control: what others think of us, the prospect of death and the behavior of the people around us.
Splitting our fears into these two categories, those within and without our control, is an essential process. It allows us to see clearly the distinction between fears that might precede action, or healthy fears, and fear about things which we can do nothing about.
Take a moment to consider the things that scare you. Which of those can you control? How might your efforts change the likelihood of your fears coming true? Are some events going to unfold irrespective of your actions?
“Whenever I see a person suffering from nervousness, I think, well, what can he expect? If he had not set his sights on things outside man’s control, his nervousness would end at once.”
The same philosophy can be applied to any of those irrational phobias we discussed earlier. If we stopped setting our sights on things outside of our control, our fear of them would quickly diminish and we could spend our time more prudently – focusing on our own actions.
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is a big one. It’s a phobia that the majority of us have to contend with at some point of our lives, whether it’s when we’re contemplating a new hairstyle or standing on stage to deliver a presentation.
Part of the reason for this fear is that we have a tendency to fall into this kind of arrogant notion that everybody is watching us. That the audience is scrutinizing our every choice of word. That the entire world is waiting for the moment that we screw up so that they can laugh and ridicule us.
As a result, we start to confine ourselves to our own private corners where we can avoid embarrassment, steering clear of the weights section of the gym or sitting in the corner of a coffee shop to write in private. We’re crippled by the thought, ‘What will they think? and our every action hinges upon the answer.
And yet, what we’re failing to remember lies at the very essence of Stoic philosophy. The answer lies right before us.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside. — Marcus Aurelius
Anxiety exists within us, not without. Fear is a problem of perception, not of situation.
The Illusion of Control
There’s a famous story in one of Epictetus’s writings in which he depicts a performing musician who errs only when he starts to believe the illusion that he actually has any control whatsoever of the audience’s opinion of him.
There he is, playing masterfully, focused solely on navigating through the chords and melodies at his fingertips. The moment he starts to question that which he cannot control, the external, his focus is lost and the quality of his performance reduced.
The same is true when we consider our actions at any given moment — musical or not. As soon as we start thinking about those variables outside of our control, like others’ opinion of us or some future event, we detract from our capacity to truly be ourselves and reach our full potential, as well as being mindful of the present moment.
An antidote exists for this troublesome symptom of fear, and it comes from philosophy. To truly avoid irrational, crippling fear, our happiness, calmness and satisfaction must all begin and end with our own efforts — not on anything external. Then, we are freed from expectation and can actually focus on whatever it is we’re doing, acting in accordance with our beliefs and values.
Whether or not we meet other peoples’ standards is irrelevant, because our peace of mind depends not upon their ideals, but only upon our own.
Challenging Irrational Fears
There’s a practice that the Stoics conjured up called negative visualization. It involves purposefully exposing yourself to undesirable situations — those around which your irrational and inconvenient fears are centered.
When you face your fears head on, you’re forced to realize that, actually, there isn’t anything to worry about. You might have had a bad past experience with public speaking or driving a car, and by re-exposing yourself to those situations you quickly teach yourself that there’s really little to be afraid of. It’s all in your head.
A few years ago I had very low confidence and self-esteem. I cared a lot about what other people thought of me, so I decided to expose myself fully to that fear. I drove to my local shopping center and lay down on the floor, right in the middle of the walkway where everybody could see me.
At first, I was terrified. As time went on, though, I quickly realized that most people didn’t even bad an eyelid at me, and those that did just looked at me a little weird and then carried on walking. Nobody really cared as much as I thought they would and it became clear that, actually, I could deal with the prospect of humiliation, and it wasn’t as horrifying as I’d expected it to be.
If your worst fears came true, could you live and thrive regardless? Could you continue to write and become successful even if you got rejected? Could you survive without a romantic partner? Would you recover from the embarrassment of messing up a few words in your presentation?
The answer, as you already know deep down, is yes.
Epictetus knew fear well. As a slave, he was tortured and poor, working to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis in return for very little.
Although these things sound terrible on the outside, Epictetus held that his thoughts and beliefs about his situation were the primary issues, not the situation itself. With the right mindset, he knew that he could bear the trials and tribulations he was presented with.
It is our opinions that decide the severity of a situation and not always the situation itself. Peace and freedom from fear lie in our mindset, but thinking our way out of fear is far easier said than done.
It is no doubt that someday, you will be forced to face seemingly unbearable situations, and when they arise, you will have to ask yourself — is this the end of me, or will I be okay? And, for as long as you are still alive and breathing, the answer is simple. Yes, you will be.
Holding the right perspective of fear, shifting our focus from that which we cannot control to the things that we surely can, is the key to living and thriving in the face of anxiety.
“We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” — Epictetus
If it cannot be controlled, then it would best be forgotten.