How to Cope With Fear and Anxiety, the Stoic Way

Hercules the Archer, by Antoine Bourdelle (1909).

The Stoic response to fear and anxiety turns around two core Stoic principles: the “dichotomy of control” and the “principle of assent.”

The Dichotomy of Control

If we are not to suffer from fear, hope, envy, and other negative emotions (or “passions”), we must learn to distinguish between those things that are within our control and those that are not.

Anything external to us is not within our control, or, at least, not entirely within our control. The only thing that is entirely within our control is our own mind. 

When it comes to things over which we do not have complete control, we play our part, we do our best, but we do not fret over the outcome—which, if we have done our best, is no reflection on us. Like the Stoic archer, we do everything we can to shoot accurately. Even so, as soon as it leaves us, the arrow, and with it the success of our action, is no longer within our control, but subject to outside forces such as a sudden change in wind speed or direction. 

Thus, we seek to be loveable, not to be loved, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not. Or, we seek to write well, not become a bestselling author, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not.

Life, says Epictetus, is like a ball game: if we start caring about the ball more than the game, it is no longer a game but a brawl and no fun at all. The important thing is not to hog the ball, or even win, but to play and enjoy the best game we can—which is a surer kind of winning, and likely also to lead to the other kind.

The Principle of Assent

Closely related to the dichotomy of control is the principle of assent. 

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, taught that knowledge could be secured through a process called katalepsis (Greek, “grasping”), which he illustrated through four successive hand gestures.

  • First, he held out an open palm to represent an impression (essentially a sense impression or idea of the mind). 
  • Second, he opposed his fingertips into a claw to represent reason assenting, by free will, to the impression.
  • Third, he flexed his fingers into a firm grasp to represent comprehension or katalepsis.
  • And last, he slapped and squeezed the fist with his other hand to represent knowledge.

The ability to assent to, or reject, impressions is, in the final analysis, the only thing that is fully within our control. 

Our highest concern should be to reject any impression that fails the test of objectivity, notably by being more aware of our value judgments and postponing our response to passionate impressions. For instance, we might be “impressed” by the purple of the imperial robe until we remind ourselves that it is no more than a piece of cloth that has been dyed purple in the foul-smelling excreta of sea snails. Or we might burn uncontrollably for the frame of a man or woman until we remind ourselves, as Marcus Aurelius did, that the sex we crave amounts to no more than “the friction of a membrane and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.”

The proper use of impressions corresponds to “cognitive distancing” in modern cognitive behavioral therapy. It is, says Epictetus, “the basis of God’s own well-being,” and the thing that most distinguishes us from children and animals. Little children are constantly overwhelmed by their impressions, which is why they go from outburst to outburst.

Because they are almost totally lacking in perspective, the smallest thing seems to them like a tragedy. “Their nanny leaves and they cry, but give them cake, and they’ve forgotten about their nanny.” 

What we grown-ups need is not cake or constant consolation, or anti-depressants, but accurate impressions, unless we are to remain all our lives like oversized children.

The Stoic Response to Fear and Anxiety

Putting two and two together, if we are anxious or fearful, it is deep down because we wish to control things that are not in our control or not fully in our control. In other words, it is because we wish for things to turn out in a certain way, instead of understanding or accepting that they will turn out however they turn out.

In that much, fear is the obverse of hope: it is because we hope that we fear. In the Discourses, Epictetus is recorded as saying, “When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?”

Given that the future is not in our gift, both hope and fear are redundant. More than redundant, they are counterproductive in that we would do better to concentrate on the things that are actually within our control so as to increase the probabilities of a favourable outcome. If, for example, we have to give a talk, it’s hard enough to prepare and deliver a good talk without also worrying about how it will be received—which is, of course, not in our control.

By worrying, we are only making our life more difficult than it needs to be and also run the risk of getting stage fright and sabotaging our performance. But if we are calm and well prepared, the overwhelming likelihood is that our talk will be generously received.

In the words of Seneca, “More things frighten us than really affect us, and we are more often afflicted in thought than in fact.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

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