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Conquer Your Anxiety with Philosophy

Conquer Your Anxiety with Philosophy

Anxiety is one of the most pervasive emotional disturbances people experience. Fortunately, having some philosophical wisdom and critical thinking up your sleeve can help you to tackle this debilitating and self-defeating emotion.

Anxiety, first of all, is a future-oriented emotion. That is, when you are anxious, you are anxious about a future event. Second, the object of your anxiety will be a future event that is possible. In other words, it might happen but it might not. For example, one commonplace form of anxiety is test anxiety. Students desire to pass their exams. Some of them, the perfectionists, desire to get a perfect score or near perfect score, and are often nervous wrecks by the time the end of the semester arrives.

So why do people experience anxiety about such future possibilities? Well, because they rate some possible outcomes as highly negative. If, for example, you didn’t give a damn about passing the exam or getting an A, then you wouldn’t worry about it. But if you tell yourself that it would be terrible, horrible, and awful if you didn’t pass, then you will invariably be anxious about your performance on the exam.

Imbedded in such emotional reasoning is a syndrome or series of faulty thinking errors. Among the most prevalent faulty thinking syndromes responsible for such anxiety is what, in my book, What would Aristotle Do? I have called the slippery slope/awfulizing/I can’t-stand-it-itis syndrome. Here, what you do is exaggerate the consequences of something happening (Slippery Slope); then you tell yourself how utterly awful it would be (Awfulizing); and then you tell yourself how you just couldn’t stand it (I-Can’t-Stand-It-itis). Thus, you might think, “If I fail the exam, then I’ll fail the course, and my whole life will be destroyed. That would so awful; and I just couldn’t stand it.”

Typically, such reasoning is only consciously thought in fleeting, elliptical, fragments such as “my life would be over,” “How awful,” “I couldn’t stand it.” But you can easily fill in the gaps if you realize that it follows this form: If such and such possibility happens, it will lead to such and such (chain of) negative consequences, which would be awful, which I couldn’t stand.

Clearly, if you tell yourself such things, then you will create undue stress and defeat your own purposes by making it harder to concentrate and perform well on the exam. So is there anything you can do?

If you push yourself to formulate the premises of your thinking, it is then possible for you to refute them with a little critical thinking, that is, prove to yourself that they are irrational. “Well, for one, my whole life is not likely to be destroyed even if I fail the exam. So, it wouldn’t be so horrible after all. It’s not like I am going to be put up against a firing squad or anything. And maybe I can’t stand a Mack Truck coming at me at 100 MPH, but surely I can stand to flunk an exam and still survive!” By talking to yourself in this way, you will have taken an important step in overcoming your anxiety.

However, at this stage you are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. This means that you will intellectually appreciate how irrational you are being; but you may still be (cognitively and biologically) disposed toward worrying. So what can you do now?

At this level, you can get philosophical and construct a philosophical antidote. Philosophical antidotes help you to overcome irrational emotional reasoning and point you toward attaining appropriate moral virtues. In the case of anxiety, the virtue in question is courage. As Aristotle would tell you, courage is the golden mean between being too afraid and not afraid enough. Anxiety involves being too afraid, so a philosophical antidote would help you to get closer to the golden mean of courage.

In my book, The New Rational Therapy, I have provided in digestible form many gems of age-old philosophic wisdom that can be used as antidotes for overcoming irrational emotions, including anxiety, and attaining their corresponding virtues. For example, for purposes of overcoming anxiety and becoming courageous, the philosopher Epictetus admonishes you to stop trying to control things that are not under your control in the first place. So, when you worry about passing the exam, you are indeed trying to control something that is not under your control, for what you want is certainty about the future. You want to know that you definitely won’t fail the exam; but all you can really have is probability. If you study and you are reasonably prepared, then you have good reason to believe that you will pass. Such probability estimates are all that you can rationally expect. So, in giving up your demand for certainty, and contenting yourself with what you can have, namely reasonable belief, you will have eliminated your perceived need to worry.

Then you can support your philosophical instruction not to worry by giving yourself an appropriate behavioral assignment. For example, instead of sitting around worrying after you have studied, you can distract yourself by doing something you like to do. Then when the specter of the possibility of failing creeps back into your consciousness as it may well do, you can call up your philosophical wisdom again (“Look I studied and have reasonable assurance that I will pass, so that’s all I can do or expect”), and then you can return to enjoying yourself.

Then when you are about to take the exam, you can once again go through the process of looking at your irrational premises, refuting them, and reframing your situation philosophically. And, with serenity and peace of mind, you can put forth your best effort.

In this way, you can exercise considerable control over your anxiety. As Epictetus would remind you, your anxiety about future possibilities, unlike the future itself, is directly under your control.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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