4 Stoic Concepts to Help Manage Anxiety
“I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked.”
Zeno of Cyprus found himself devoid of his Earthly treasures, all lost to the sea, on the shores of Athens. With nowhere else to turn, he sought solace in the library and discovered the works of Socrates which altered the course of his life forever.
Enthralled by the writings, Zeno began teaching his own philosophies from the steps — or the stoa — of the Athens marketplace. This philosophy became known as Stoicism and focused around one main credo:
Living in accordance with Universal Reason, or Logos, is the purpose of human life. A life lived in pursuit of instinct, impulse, and passion becomes the life of an animal, while the pursuit of reason makes the human existence worthwhile.
Even today, Stoicism is studied and talked about in popular works: Derren Brown’s Happy, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s The Daily Stoic, and Donald Robertsons’ Stoicism and the Art of Happiness — to name a few. The main focus of many of these works is not, like the old American adage, the pursuit of happiness, but rather a knowledgable and intentional removal of unhappiness.
The problem with “pursuing happiness” comes mainly in the fact that happiness is not a measurable, quantifiable thing. Happiness is really more of the result of a well-lived life, rather than the end goal.
Stoic teachers, instead of focusing on being happy, help us come to terms with ways of simply being less unhappy.
Many of these teachings, when applied through a modern lens, are also excellent ways of teaching us to manage anxiety:
1. Write down your thoughts.
Journaling is a powerful mindfulness tool, and many Stoic teachers have recorded the numerous benefits journaling offers. Journaling helps us gather our thoughts and work through problems in a concrete, easy-to-visualize manner; it helps us transform abstract thoughts into ink, making them tangible and approachable.
You can find plenty online about how to journal. Should you do a bullet journal? Should you journal in the morning or at night? Should you only write in blue or black ink? Should you handwrite it or type it?
Truthfully, none of that matters. There is no “proper” way to journal. Do whatever works best for you. Some experts suggest a gratitude journal while others say that writing out negative thoughts can be beneficial to working through them. Either way, what’s important is that you’re taking the thoughts in your head and putting them down on paper (or a word-processor).
A journal is not your memoir or autobiography — it is a private place for your thoughts and feelings. Write it for you, in whatever way yields the most benefits.
2. Change your perceptions.
It is a primary Stoic principle that external forces should not impact our happiness. Epictetus famously said:
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
Often, it is easy for us to look at our lives and find reasons to be anxious. If you’ve, for example, been fired from your job you might start to worry about financial obstacles, future career endeavors, starting over in a new place, or how your life has just been upended and the future is uncertain.
Being fired from a job is not something you can control, and so it should not be a source of discontent. The worry comes not from the act of being fired, but from our perception of that event. “I’ve been fired,” a fact, translates to, “Oh God I don’t have a job, and I’ll never have a job, and then I’ll lose my savings, and then the bank will steal my things, and then—” AKA a series of assumptions about misfortune.
Perhaps, however, a week later you find that you’ve just nailed an interview at a better company with a higher salary, or you’ve finally decided to give freelancing a real attempt and you’re much happier with your new path in life. In this instance then, wasn’t being fired a good thing?
Things we can control: our thoughts and reactions.
Things we can’t control: everything else.
In much the same way that we can’t control being fired, we can’t control the way other people treat us, or the weather, or the Wi-Fi speed. Sometimes, we can’t even control our bodies. All that is within our control are our thoughts, desires, aversions, and reactions. These are the things that make us undoubtedly us.
So keeping this in mind, coming to an understanding about how little we control can be beneficial to dealing with anxiety. It removes a sense of worry. Know that you can only control your response to an event, and not the event itself, and it becomes much more manageable.
3. Take a look at the view from above.
Stoicism is a very inward-facing philosophy. It generally revolves around the centering of the self and taking control over one’s own mind. As part of this, however, is a stoic concept that encourages us to take a look at the big picture. And I mean big:
“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Ultimately, nothing we do matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s a sobering thought. Stoicism teaches that we let go of our sense of ego and pride, and a good way to do that is to remember that we are a very, very small part of the universe and history.
This thought could become depressing on its own, but when factored into the larger concept of Stoicism as a whole, and put into practice with other Stoic beliefs, it is a wonderful way of keeping the self centered without being self-centered (so sorry).
It’s also a good way of contextualizing the things and people in our lives. Things that might feel earth-shattering, like a breakup, are comparatively minor events. That doesn’t lessen their importance in our lives but can be a nice reminder that they aren’t the most important thing.
4. Live virtuously.
The Stoic’s believe in four key pillars of virtue: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
Wisdom applies not only to the acquisition of knowledge, but also the application of it. It focuses on gaining an understanding of Stoic concepts and then using them daily to help live a more meaningful, focused life — to understanding how to make informed choices based on our understanding of what we can control.
Courage comes in many forms to the Stoics: courage to face death, courage to face misfortune, courage to face conformity. Courage comes from self-assuredness, from a belief in the path one has chosen and desire to stay on that path no matter the adversity faced.
Temperance is an understanding that abundance comes from what is essential. To use a non-literary metaphor, temperance is Charmin Ultra: less is more. By learning to live essentially, without attachment to material things that provide us fleeting moments of joy when our peers look at us enviously only to, a week later, be outdated and once again seeking that “fix,” we open ourselves up to a more stable and long-lasting source of happiness.
Marcus Aurelius described justice as “the source of all other virtues.” It is not a legal justice, where perpetrators receive punishment for their crimes, but a moral justice. Stoic justice refers to the notion that we should not live in a way that inflicts harm or injury to another person. He likens humanity to a hive of bees, suggesting that if we all lived more harmoniously and collectively, that we could flourish as a society. Justice, then, is empathy.
If we remember these four virtues and apply them to our daily lives, we might find ourselves more content with our present, leading more meaningful lives. A focused life — a life free from distractions and sources of unhappiness — gives us less to worry about.
By not concerning ourselves with things outside of our control and instead looking inward at the choices we can make every day to lead more meaningful lives, we remove unnecessary sources of distress and anxiety.
In the end, we are just small parts of a much larger whole, but we can try every day to make that small part purposeful and impactful in its own, small way.