Anxiety — Stoicism is the Antidote

Anxiety is an undeniable facet of human existence. It affects us all, regardless of our wealth, age, or choice of smartphone. The complexities of modern life, characterized by isolation and uncertainty, have exacerbated this condition for many in recent times. The purpose of this essay is to explore an age-old school of philosophical thought that has personally aided me in coping with anxiety and may extend solace to others – Stoicism.

Stoicism’s origins trace back to ancient Greece, where a man named Zeno first articulated its principles. It found further refinement through the intellectual contributions of prominent Roman thinkers such as Seneca and the renowned Emperor Marcus Aurelius. At its core, this philosophy underscores the significance of self-mastery, emotional detachment, and virtuous conduct.

Regarding the matter of anxiety, Stoics present a distinct perspective. They contend that anxiety’s roots delve into two primary sources: flawed assumptions or “judgments” and a misguided sense of purposelessness in human beings (a concept that aligns with the ideas of Kierkegaard, who proposed that excessive freedom can lead to anxiety). The remedy, they argue, lies in rectifying our judgments and embracing our “natural” human purpose.

To illustrate, consider this scenario: you send an email requesting a favor from someone, and they fail to respond by the following day, causing you considerable anxiety.

A Stoic perspective suggests that your anxiety stems, firstly, from flawed presumptions or judgments. These initial presumptions in this case might include: (1) the recipient is deeply displeased with me, (2) I shouldn’t have bothered the recipient, (3) it’s morally wrong of me to seek this favor, and other similar speculations about why you haven’t received a response. On a deeper level, your anxiety arises because you desire approval and respect, feeling slighted by the person’s lack of acknowledgment.

Now, these preliminary presumptions are flawed because it’s nearly impossible to ascertain their truth with certainty, and even if they were accurate, there’s little that can be done about them at this moment. Therefore, worrying about these matters serves no rational purpose. Moreover, the deeper presumption is flawed because it’s born from a misdirected sense of purposelessness.

According to the Stoics, the purpose of humans isn’t to gain universal adoration, amass great wealth, or achieve boundless fame. No matter how “successful” one becomes in these pursuits, true satisfaction remains elusive, perpetually haunted by comparisons with those who appear more “successful.”

According to Marcus Aurelius, the purpose of humans is to embody virtue and reason. Just as flowers bloom, rain falls, and the sun shines, humans are meant to engage in what makes them uniquely human, distinct from other creatures on Earth. This involves fostering rational philosophical thoughts and practicing virtuous actions. These notions align with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle regarding human nature. If individuals lead lives characterized by philosophical contemplation, meaningful friendships, and moral deeds, they fulfill their purpose. These aspects are firmly within one’s control, unlike external circumstances and others’ perceptions. Constantly seeking universal approval or accumulating wealth will only perpetuate a cycle of unending anxiety.

Returning to the email example, by ceasing to speculate about the reasons behind the other person’s behavior, acknowledging its beyond your control, and reminding yourself that your purpose doesn’t hinge on universal popularity, you can significantly alleviate your anxiety.

These ideas have the potential to provide solace to us today, just as they did to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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