- The Stoa Letter
- How to Manage Anxiety with Stoicism
How to Manage Anxiety with Stoicism
Stoic theory and practice
Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.
Knowing what is up to us is one of the most effective weapons we have against anxiety.
Epictetus’s Handbook opens with:
This encapsulates one of the key ideas in Stoicism.
There’s a fundamental divide between things that are up to you and those that are not.
It’s a practical idea. If you try to control what is not up to you, you will fail and will simply be wasting energy.
But this principle is more than practically useful. Ultimately, it’s action-guiding.
To explain this, the Stoics spoke about an archer. The archer is only in control of aiming and releasing their arrow. After they fire the arrow, whatever occurs is no longer up to them. What happens can be useful feedback. But the archer understands that they are subject to the whims of fortune. Sudden shifts in the weather or the judges’s opinions may ruin their chances of success.
Like the archer, our sphere of control is small. Ultimately, we’re responsible for our rational abilities: attention, decisions, and judgment. That is what we should perfect. The consequences of our decisions may be essential information – but like the fired arrow, they are out of our control.
How can we use this insight to alleviate anxiety?
First, we can remember to pause. Then, focus on what is up to you.
Take control of your judgments and determine whether you’re anxious about reality. Describe the situation in objective terms.
If we’re nervous that a projectile is coming towards us but see that we just got spooked by a shadow, that realization is enough to dissolve fear. At other times, negative thoughts keep on coming. Thoughts arise. The human mind is always generating them. That’s not under our direct control. We can accept this and then move our attention back to the manner at hand.
To do that, practice reframing things in terms of your values.
Question whether something truly important is at stake. Everything that is not up to us is indifferent. Why worry about it when it is not up to us? Our wealth, social status, and pleasure do not make for happiness. What matters is how we use such things. As such return your focus to what matters again and again: taking responsibility for your response.
Stoics don’t experience as much anxiety because they recognize that much of our mental suffering is the result of ruminating over things that don’t ultimately matter.
Anxiety is usually over externals. What matters is that you use externals well. Embrace everything else.
When you encounter anxiety:
Describe the situation in objective terms
Reframe it in terms of your values
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🏛️ Last week’s letter celebrating Dr. Sugrue and my favorite lecture on Marcus Aurelius was one of our most popular yet. If you didn’t get the chance to read it, check it out here.
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