Anxiety is all about expectation - the expectation that something in the future will cause us some sort of harm. It’s impossible to live without anxiety. In fact, some anxiety might even be good for us. The key is learning how to manage it.
Here I’ll suggest a few techniques that will hopefully reduce anxiety levels. You’ll be able to apply them to your current predicament - being locked down at home, as well as other potential anxiety-causing situations that life can sometimes bring.
The three tips within this article all have their foundation in a philosophy called Stoicism. Here’s a link to more information about their origins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism
Stoicism is an ancient wisdom but it still has lots of practical applications for us today. They suggest that our beliefs and understanding of things are limited by our perspective. Each of us are a product of the stories we tell ourselves. Each day we take the data and information from the world around us and then edit it into a story. However, the stories we are telling ourselves might not be as true as we think and they might be making us more anxious than we need to be.
Stoics believe that by using certain exercises we can learn to better manage our emotions and not get overwhelmed. Is that something you’d be interesting in learning about? If so, let’s start.
TIP 1:Only Focus On What You Can Control
One of my favourite films is Groundhog Day. The main character, Phil Connors, is forced to relive the same day over and over again. Here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmdXJ_1aGz0
Gradually Phil learns to take better control of his emotions, his habits and his character. He transforms himself through experimenting with different ways of thinking and behaving. He comes to realise that he cannot control being trapped in the same day but he can control how he reacts.
Consider this equation. E + R = O. It stands for Event + Response = Outcome.
Here is how it works: Event – teachers are sending work home for you to complete. If you Respond to it in the right way the Outcome will be less stressful. Or, Event – the Coronavirus outbreak. Response - wash hands properly, practice social distancing as this will lead to an Outcome of less people getting the virus.The formula teaches us an event doesn’t necessarily cause us to become anxious. It is to how we respond to the event that will determine how we feel.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest Roman emperors:
“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.”
Understanding that it is within your power to change how you feel about something can help to reduce your anxiety immediately.
It can be a useful exercise to write down ’Events’ that we have no control over. These include the past, the future, the weather, what other people think (especially what people think of us),how people behave. The list goes on and on.
The comedian Groucho Marx used to take this Stoic wisdom on board:“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today.”
Perhaps you could say something similar to yourself when you wake up each morning?
There’s an old saying from Scandinavia: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
Weather is an event and just because it rains it doesn’t mean that you have to get wet. It’s all about how you prepare for the rain. The band Crowded House have a song called Weather With You. One line goes: “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you." When you learn to ‘take the weather with you’, you have developed the skill of managing your emotions and staying clam, no matter the event that you face.
Like any other skill, emotions and how you respond to events takes practice. In your life you’ve learned thousands of skills - from learning to tie your shoelaces to learning to read and write. Spend some time each day thinking how you can best react in certain situations. Role play them in your mind if this helps. This practice will give you the power to choose a response that will produce a better outcome for you.
TIP 2: Train Your Perception to Avoid Good and Bad
Once of the principal Stoic philosophers was a man called Epictetus. He wrote:
“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgement about these things.”
Stoic philosophy acknowledge that life can be hard sometimes. They believe that there is no such thing as good or bad, there is only perception. Stuff happens. We then make judgements about what happens. If we judge that something really bad has happened, then we might get upset, sad, or angry, depending on what it is. If we judge that something bad is going to happen then this can also trouble us. All of your emotions are the product of the judgements you make.
However, we cannot always judge whether a situation is good or bad at the time it happens. Now, I’m not talking about matters such as someone dying or becoming seriously ill. I’m talking about things that might seem big at the time but when you look back you realise that they’re not as big as you thought they were. This can include falling out with a friend, failing a test or being overwhelmed with work. So, when something is causing you some anxiety, ask yourself these questions:
· Are things making you anxious or are you making yourself anxious?
· Might this problem not seem as bad in a few days, weeks, years?
· How would your role model or an imaginary friend deal with this problem?
The last question is a particularly good one. It can be a useful exercise to bring other people to mind when you’re feeling anxious and imagining them giving you advice. Your role model could be a friend, a hero or even a fictitious character. How might they deal with this problem? This sort of exercise might help you to get some distance from the problem and start to question your own story.
TIP 3: Keep A Journal
Keeping a Journal is something that all the great Stoic philosophers committed to. It became a daily practice to them and it’s something that you could try to. All you’ll need is a notebook or a diary.
Writing a Journal helps you to prepare for the day ahead and reflect on the day that has just passed. Each evening Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about how he could be a more compassionate, resilient, humble man. In a similar vein, ask yourself these three questions at the end of each day and spend five to ten minutes writing your response to them:
· What did you do today that you were proud of and happy with?
· What could you have done better?
· How could you be a better version of yourself tomorrow?
By all means ask yourself other questions too. The more challenging the better. Reflecting on the day that has passed and thinking about the day ahead is a great way to slow yourself down. Modern life is very fast and perhaps this, in itself,is the cause of many people’s anxiety. You can also use your journal to consider the things that you’re grateful for. The more you focus on being grateful and appreciative, the happier you’ll be. When something ‘bad’ happens don’t think so much about what you’ve lost. Instead think about what you still have.
Keeping a Journal will help you to be clearer on what parts of your day are within your control and what parts are not. It can help you to realise what you’ve got, rather than what you haven’t got and can help you to make tomorrow a better day where you show the world a better version of you.
· Learn What We Can Control
· Train Your Perception to Avoid Good and Bad
· Keep A Journal
A final thought from Marcus Aurelius from his book The Meditations:
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
Remember all of these methods take time. But now might be the perfect time to try out one or two of them. If you’re an adult reading this article you can try these ideas alongside a young person. If you are interested in more tips about studying away from school such as improving time management and self-motivation click the links below.
No.1: Time Management
No.3: Note Taking
This resource was created by Andy Griffith, director of Malit in the Community.