What if I lose my job? What if I my girlfriend breaks up with me? What if I can’t make friends at university? What if other people don’t like me? What if my business doesn’t take off? What if I disappoint my parents?
Many of us spend a lot of time worrying about things. We know it’s fruitless, yet we can’t help it.
Over the past few years, we’ve started to talk much more openly about anxiety than we ever have done before.
In the last year, it became even more real for me, as my girlfriend started to talk to me about her anxiety. A lot of my friends told me about theirs too. They’ve told about how they stop themselves from seeing their friends. They’ve told me about how they can’t sleep at night. They’ve told about how they cry hysterically. They’ve told me about their panic attacks. They’ve told me about times when they couldn’t breathe.
It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK is likely to have anxiety at some stage in their life, yet from what I’ve seen around me it feels like that number is a lot higher.
The more I come across it, the more I’ve started to consider myself lucky because I’ve never had to face it myself.
That led me to start asking questions.
Why are so many of my friends so anxious yet I rarely am?
There are probably a lot of factors, but one that stands out to me is my dad. I can’t recall ever seeing him panic about something. He’s always been very calm. And I guess some of his calmness rubbed off on me.
I didn’t know how much of a privilege that was until recently. But the more I come across anxiety the more I try to reverse engineer what my dad was doing that made him (and subsequently me) so calm.
One of the plausible answers I’ve found comes from a school of philosophy that has been around for thousands of years: Stoicism.
An approach we often take to ease our worries is to try and assess the probability of the thing we fear actually happening. We might tell ourselves that it’s unlikely, and therefore we shouldn’t worry about it. We might also confide in a friend, who might also tell us not to worry because they’re sure that what we fear isn’t going to happen.
This approach has 2 problems:
- It often fails to reassure us and the worry remains firmly in the back of our minds.
- It does not prepare us for the cases when the thing we fear actually happens.
For most of us, the reasons behind our worry aren’t so much about the thing we fear itself, they’re more about not allowing ourselves to process what life would be like even in the worst-case scenario.
One of the reasons why we worry so much is because we convince ourselves that if the thing we fear were to happen, it would be a disaster.
But what if we allowed ourselves to venture into what we fear the most? What if we were to imagine that the worst were to happen?
If we allow ourselves to do that, we might realise that:
In most cases, the worst is still survivable.
Bad things do happen, it’s just that we are more capable of enduring them than we currently think.
And not only that but, if we’ve allowed ourselves to face what we fear the most, we’re already prepared for it if it actually happens.
In the words of Seneca:
“Fortune falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected. The man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent.”
We can equip ourselves for the things we can’t control in life if we allow ourselves to experience them before they even occur.
So if we find ourselves worrying excessively, here’s what we could do:
- Ask ourselves: “What am I worried about?”
- Note down the things that come to mind.
- For each worry we’ve noted down, we can try to picture what the worst-case scenario might be like. We should imagine that that situation is our new reality and try our best to come to terms with it.
Here’s what an example of that might look like if I were worried about redundancy:
“If I got made redundant, the first thing I would do is tell my wife. I would be embarrassed to tell her, but I know she would be supportive. I’d get some redundancy pay and we’ve got some savings, so we’d be ok for a few months. If I can’t find another job until then we might have to sell some of our furniture and move in to a smaller apartment. We lived in a smaller apartment a few years ago, so I guess it wouldn’t be that bad.”
I admit that I’ve never done this myself in such an intentional way. But, to some extent, I think this is what I’m doing subconsciously all the time. It’s a habit I’ve developed from watching my dad.
By making a habit of processing what life would be like even if what we fear were to become a reality, we would not only find ourselves capable of enduring it but also prepared for the eventuality.
And that might just be enough to free us from some of our worries.