How Stoicism can help calm your anxiety
What if I told you a bunch of old dudes from 2000 years ago could help you get a fresh perspective on your anxiety?
Time for a quick history lesson:
In Ancient Greece, there were a few cool blokes who strutted around in bedsheets and beards, telling people how to live. We call them ‘the Stoics’ because that’s the philosophy they shared: stoicism.
The most famous stoics were Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca.
These wise guys professed that it’s not what you say, but what you do that matters. That is, actions speak louder than words.
I’ve been researching the Stoics, and reading their original texts — like Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’. And I’ve realised this:
Stoicism might just be the best philosophy for getting a grip on our mental health.
What stoicism can teach us about anxiety
Before we dive in to how stoicism can help calm the mind, I want to just point out something:
THESE DUDES WERE ALL DUDES! They didn’t get periods. So they didn’t get PMS. When I tried to read ‘Meditations’ three days before my period, I threw the book at the wall and screamed, “Shut up, Marcus! Don’t tell me how to live! I feel like SHIT!”
So, there’s that.
Not their fault they were men. But they were. And they never mentioned how one can deal with fluctuating hormones.
Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s look a little deeper at Stoicism and how it help us keep calm and carry on:
Stoicism is a blueprint for life
Many philosophies help us navigate life a little smoother. Stoicism is no different. It gives us practical tips to create a life we love — and deal with the ups and downs.
The word ‘stoic’ tends to mean someone who isn’t affected by pain or stress or trauma — or even happiness. But that’s not what the Stoics were about.
Instead, they gave us practical tools to be more resilient. And when we’re really deep in anxiety or depression, resilience is KEY. Because the more grit we have, the better we are at handling life’s little (and big) annoyances.
We know we’re supposed to be more mindful. But when your mind is stuck on loop, worrying about the future, it’s easy to miss the wonderful things all around you. Right here, right now.
When we learn to pull back from our fantasy future, and sample and savour this moment, we find our anxiety lessens its grip.
The Stoics were all about being present.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
And here’s Aurelius:
“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.”
Live simply, with gratitude
It’s no coincidence that anxiety has become the most common mental health issue in the world today. Our lives are CRAZY complicated.
Life sure seemed a lot simpler in Ancient Greece. So it would be easy for us to dismiss the Stoics and be all, “Whateverrrr, you guys go get yourselves a smartphone, and a 9–5 job, and a kid whose always begging you to buy him the latest Hot Wheels, and get back to me on living a simple life.” But they can teach us a lot.
It was Epictetus who mused:
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
And damn, the man was right. When we rejoice and appreciate what we already have, our satisfaction soars.
But if we think about everything we don’t have (and what others seem to have), we feel resentful. Envious. Depressed.
Let go, and forget what others think
The Stoics teach us that we should only worry about the things we can change. And let go of the things we can’t. This thought is actually the focal point of stoic philosophy.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
Another thing we can’t control? What others think of us. We might desperately want everyone to love us, but it’s totally out of our hands.
As Aurelius reminds us:
I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.
So let’s only worry about what we think and feel about ourselves. Screw everyone else!
Put things in perspective
Whenever I find myself in a REAL spin, I stop and look up at the stars. Or the clouds. I remind myself how vast and infinite the universe is, and how tiny a speck I am.
That’s not meant to make us feel insignificant, but instead to help us realise that often our problems are miniscule. We blow them out of proportion in our heads, but the world keeps spinning. And what’s also magical is this: when we get out of our heads and see the bigger picture, we actually connect on a more wholesome, authentic level — with the entire universe!
Aurelius said “think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share”, and this:
“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.”
Want more anxiety-busting ideas and inspiration? Check out my free anxiety affirmations and the ‘8 Ways to Worry Less’ checklist.