In a technologically-driven world, it may come as a surprise that a millennia-old philosophy can help us manage anxiety in real and practical ways.
Anxiety can be a constant background hum in our lives. For many, the volume of that hum turns up significantly when they become parents. Perhaps it’s the result of spending too much time on Google, reading about everything that could possibly go wrong. Maybe we encounter personal tragedies that rock us to our core, and we realise in a very visceral way how fleeting and delicate life really is. It could be the raw understanding that our lives have been forever changed. If we experience this, we are not alone. According to Beyond Blue, over three million Australians face anxiety, cutting across genders, geographies and socioeconomic categories.
Stoicism has influenced great leaders for thousands of years and has four overarching tenets: wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. The first three may seem obvious, but the fourth tenet of moderation, which relates to discipline, is key to understanding Stoic philosophy. As Dr Maxine Therese, an expert in the field of child wellbeing, says, “The Stoics believed that self-control leads to the ability to overcome negative life situations.”
When we’re faced with a challenge, one of the most important questions that Stoicism asks us to examine is whether we can change a situation or not. In the text Discourses, Greek Stoic Epictetus goes so far as to say, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
Author Ryan Holiday draws on this sentiment, explaining that we can’t choose what happens, but we can choose how we respond. This extends to having the experience of anxiety itself. Sometimes it may seem as though everything in life is a choice. Clarity regarding what the choice is between, however, is essential. We may not have control over whether we experience anxiety or not; instead, the choice may be how to deal with that anxiety. Dr Therese says, “If one experiences anxiety, it is about accepting it stoically and recognising that life brings anxiety.” This can be a very freeing concept; we are not somehow wrong or faulty for feeling anxious. Once this idea is accepted, we can look at strategies for managing such thoughts and feelings.
In his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson explains the ‘view from above’ strategy. Think about the issue you’re facing as though you’re on a mountaintop, looking down at the situation. The purpose of this strategy is to gain perspective, and physical cues can be used in this exercise: close your eyes and experience the feeling of looking down at your life. In light of everything, does the potential problem still seem significant? Does it still seem likely to happen? If it does have a high chance of happening, can you think of ways to manage it?
The Stoics advocated for preparation. As Roman emperor Marcus Augustus writes in Meditations, “When you first rise in the morning, tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous and the cranks.” Initially, this can seem like taking a negative perspective. However, Stoics see this as an opportunity to bolster one’s self. Donald Robertson explains that our ability to cope with challenging situations can be strengthened by preparing ourselves for the very situations we’re afraid of encountering. Dr Therese explains, “Premeditation of adversity is perhaps one of the most well-known concepts of Stoicism and translates to something along the lines of ‘prepare for the worst; hope and work for the best’.” She says that Stoicism strives for balance: “When we are prepared for the worst, we are less likely to be thrown off balance. Then, if things turn out better than rehearsed, we can say life is rather good.”
We could suggest that any strategy or philosophy can be taken to extremes, and Dr Therese cautions that we now know more about the nature of emotions than the Stoics did. She says, “We know that emotions are neither good nor bad; they are responses that help us locate ourselves in the world and support others.” When considering whether we should introduce some Stoic perspective in our interactions with our children, Dr Therese says that the emphasis should not necessarily be on preparing for the worst. Instead, we can offer our children questions framed with ‘I wonder’. For example, we might say ‘I wonder how it may feel if this particular problem happened?’ Dr Therese says, “In this way we can support children to feel into the unknown in a safe space rather than a fear driven one. By paying attention to the child’s inner response of feelings and thoughts, we are supporting them to know and trust that even the most difficult, unpredictable and unprecedented situations can be navigated emotionally.”
As parents, we’ve all faced challenges, and Stoicism can help us to manage the anxiety we may feel about these situations. Can we fully prevent negative things from happening? No, despite our best efforts, we cannot. But we can control how we rise to meet these situations. In time, we may even come to see that our greatest parenting challenges were actually our greatest opportunities.
There are many effective options for managing anxiety and mental health conditions, and finding the right solution can be a very personal journey. Speak with your GP or access 24/7 support at beyondblue.org.au.