“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca
The 21st century has been described as “The Age of Anxiety,” “The United States of Stress,” “The World of Worry.” The implication is that what we are experiencing—pandemics, terrorism, political and economic turmoil, existential angst, and let’s stop there—is unique, unprecedented, uncharted. News headlines, tweets, email and text sign-offs—you hear and see it everywhere: the world has never seen anything quite like this… hope you’re well during these unprecedented times… leaders facing unparalleled challenges… there’s no playbook for this.
We have great news. None of our problems are new. And there is a playbook—one that’s been tried and tested since the 3rd century BCE: Stoicism.
Zeno used it after he was shipwrecked and lost everything. Marcus Aurelius used it as the ruler of an empire ravaged by wars, famines, and a deadly contagion, which became known as the Antonine Plague. Seneca used it to withstand two exiles and two natural catastrophes. Epictetus used it to endure thirty years as a slave. George Washington used it in the darkest days of the American Revolution. James Stockdale used it to survive seven years or torture and unimaginable loneliness as a prisoner of war. Toussaint Louverture used it and rose up against Napoleon’s armies to lead the Haitian Revolution.
We created this guide to give you a time-tested playbook to help you cure your anxiety. It is rooted in the wisdom of the Stoics. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:
[*] Do Less
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes…some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” — Seneca
Anxiety is often defined as a feeling, an experience, or a state of worry, nervousness, or uneasiness.
65 million people in the U.S. alone struggle with some type of stress or anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most commonly reported. We know we’re anxious, but we can’t exactly put our finger on why.
One of the effects of the pandemic was, suddenly, we weren’t doing the things that, in the past, we told ourselves were the causes of our anxiety. We weren’t having to frantically get through security to catch a flight. We weren’t battling traffic to get somewhere on time. We weren’t dealing with people in the grocery store or the coffee shop or the subway. Prior to the pandemic, if someone told you would no longer have to deal with all of those things, you would be certain that your anxiety would go way down. But most likely, it didn’t.
Because anxiety has nothing to do with any of those things…
“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” — Epictetus
There is nothing worse than the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s not a physical pain; but it’s not all mental either. You can actually feel whatever it is sitting there, in your gut, tying you up in knots.
Stop. Take a breath. What is the source of this actually? No one and nothing is physically tying up your stomach. It’s just you. You’re doing this.
The Stoics actually talk about this. “Today I escaped from anxiety,” Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations. “Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” He writes this during a plague, no less.
We tell ourselves we are stressed and anxious and worried because of the pressure our boss puts on us or because of some looming deadline or because of all of the places we have to be and people we have to see. And then when all that gets paired down, you realize, ‘Oh, no, it was me. I’m the common variable.’
Anxiety comes from the inside. We are the creators of our anxiety. Which means, as Marcus said, we can discard it. We can let it go. We can cure ourselves of our anxiety…
There’s no question that Marcus Aurelius’ life was filled with things to worry about. .
Plagues. Wars. Natural Catastrophes. Financial crises. Frustrating colleagues. Personal insecurities. Existential angst. Health problems. And the loss of five children to boot, Marcus’ life was littered with stresses and anxieties.
And if it wasn’t—if everything had been easy—we probably wouldn’t be talking about him here two thousand years later. The historian Cassius Dio praised Marcus because he calmly persevered:
“[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”
So how did he manage? How did he deal with all of these stresses and anxieties?
He relied on his Stoic training. He used what he learned in studying the lives and the works of the Stoics who came before him: Zeno, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca, to name a few. He used these 9 Stoic remedies for anxiety…
“Always define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus talked about how his stresses and anxieties were perceptions he latched onto. They were monsters of his own creation. He told himself to pierce through those perceptions and “see what they really are.” When he was overwhelmed because he felt “occupied in the weightest business,” Marcus would look at his royal purple robe and say this is just sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. When he was stressed about money, he’d think about what money afforded. Fine seafood dinners? That’s just a dead fish. High-end noble vintage wines? That’s just grape juice. He called it stripping away the legend, ripping off the monster’s mask.
Anxiety is overwhelming and ambiguous. It can be so profound as to leave us immobile. Doubt, uncertainty, fear, worry, pressure, nervousness—they swirl around inside us and we don’t know what to do about it, we don’t know where exactly it’s coming from, we don’t know when or if it will go away.
The first thing we have to do is name it.
Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience, used an fMRI study to demonstrate that the simple act of naming an emotion calms the emotional center of the brain. When research subjects were shown images and asked to label a strong emotion, they showed decreased activity in the region of the brain that triggers emotional responses, and greater activity in the region of the brain associated with vigilance and cognitive control. As Lieberman explains:
In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses…This is ancient wisdom…Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.
Ancient wisdom, indeed. Seneca’s line was that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Marcus said to lay things bare and “strip away the legend that encrusts them.” If given free reign, negative thoughts and emotions will behave like uncaged beasts ready to turn on you. They’ll stir your fears, rattle your emotions, and ruin your week. Stress, anxiety, and anger become chronic and debilitating when they linger and fester.
They become what feels like an unbeatable enemy. Unless you summon the strength to put them down by writing them down. Tame them by naming them. And close the corral doors behind them.
“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation.” — Marcus Aurelius
We all feel pulled. To do more. To go more places. To make more progress. We are dogged by the constant worry we’re in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing—or rather, there is somewhere else, somewhere better that we could, that we should, be.
It’s a feeling that manifests not just in anxiety, but in guilt, envy, fear, insecurity, to boot. Basically, misery. The exact opposite of being content, happy or grateful. Of being present.
Marcus Aurelius knew this. Why do you think he mentioned “the present” and “the present moment” more than twenty times in Meditations? Each time he is saying, don’t worry about the past, don’t worry about the future, embrace what is in front of you right now. Be here now, he is saying. Don’t be somewhere else. Be here, and be here well.
It’s a reminder we seem to need constantly. Our restlessness, at an almost cultural level, is depriving us of the gift and beauty of the moment that is before us. Instead of doing what we’re doing with the full measure of our attention, we give it whatever fraction has not wandered away or been stolen by the device in our pocket. And then we wonder why time flies by, why we have to return to clean up mistakes, or why we never feel good enough.
Do what you’re doing—whether it’s washing the dishes, sitting in traffic or writing your thesis. Be where you are—whether that’s with your kids, or in a career transition or at the doctor’s office. It’s where you’re supposed to be. In the right now—there is nothing else. Just this. In the right here, the present is all there is.
Be there, be there well.
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from—let me put you to the test’ . . .” — Epictetus
Every minute of every day, thoughts pop into your head. About what’s happening. About other people. About yourself. About what you see. About what you feel.
What are you supposed to do with all these thoughts? Well, according to the core premise of Stoicism the one thing you’re not supposed to do is act on them immediately. Epictetus talks about stopping and putting every impression to the test. Or, as Dr. Stixraud said on the Daily Stoic podcast , with every thought, we must have the discipline to ask: “Is this true?”
Epictetus referred to this as putting your impressions to the test.
One of the wonders of your mind is the quickness with which it can comprehend and categorize things. We are constantly making split-second decisions. This subjectivity can be very misleading, it can warp reality itself. Which is why we have to slow down, submit every impression to the test, confirm that everything we think and feel is true.
Because most of it isn’t! We’re not actually upset, we’re just hungry. We haven’t been wronged, it just looks like we have. There’s nothing actually to worry about, that’s just our anxiety talking. This situation isn’t “bad,” because just as easily we could see what’s “good” in it. Or maybe–as is so often the case–we don’t need to think anything at all, we can just turn off our thoughts about this or that altogether.
“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” Epictetus
The anxious father, worried about his children. What does he want? A world that is always safe.
A frenzied traveler—what does she want? For the weather to hold and for traffic to part so she can make her flight.
A nervous investor? That the market will turn around and an investment will pay off.
All of these scenarios hold the same thing in common. As Epictetus says, it’s wanting something outside our control. Getting worked up, getting excited, nervously pacing—these intense, pained, and anxious moments show us at our most futile and servile. Staring at the clock, at the ticker, at the next checkout lane over, at the sky—it’s as if we all belong to a religious cult that believes the gods of fate will only give us what we want if we sacrifice our peace of mind.
Today, when you find yourself getting anxious, ask yourself: Why are my insides twisted into knots? Am I in control here or is my anxiety? And most important: Is my anxiety doing me any good?
“We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus, showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.” — Seneca
Here’s a simple recipe for curing anxiety. It comes from Marcus Aurelius:
“If you seek tranquillity,” he said, “do less.”
And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why we are so anxious. Or why our performance is suffering. Or why our heart isn’t really in it.
Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point.
But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential. We’d also get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…” — Seneca
Some time around the year 64 AD, Seneca’s friend Lucilius sent him a letter. Lucilius was nervous about an ongoing lawsuit. We’re not sure what the suit was over, but we know that it was a serious case and that Lucilius had made himself anxious about the outcome and had written to Seneca for some advice.
Seneca’s advice? Why are you borrowing unhappiness? Why would you be miserable now just because you might be in the future? Basically, he told him that “what will happen will happen, so stop being anxious.” Now this might sound like a strange thing to hear from Seneca, the creator of the premeditatio malorum exercise that we talk about a lot in the Daily Stoic email. It’s stranger still considering that in the very same letter, Seneca tells Lucilius, “Let us think of everything that can happen as something which will happen.”
How does that work? Isn’t that contradictory advice?
The point of premeditatio malorum—negative visualization—is not to make you worry. It’s to eliminate worry! By being aware of all of the possibilities that lay before us, we can now proceed with our preparations. Who has time for anxiety? We should be fortifying ourselves for what may come. Why waste time preferring one outcome to another? We are ready for all of them equally. But what if the worst case scenario happens? Ok, that won’t be fun, so let’s enjoy the present moment while we still can.
Premeditatio malorum—whether you carry it in your pocket in the form of our medallion—or you just run through it before embarking on a project or a journey or a longhaul flight, is a form of freedom. A form of empowerment. A way to help you meet the future by seizing what’s in front of you right now.
“To shrug it all off and wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness. Child’s play.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius headed an entire empire. He had books to read, writing to do, laws to pass, cases to hear, troops to lead. He was a busy man. He, like us, was pulled in many directions. He had anxieties, worries, hopes, and dreams.
Yet he speaks frequently and beautifully about taking moments of quiet and calm.
“If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind,” he said, “free of the future and the past—can make yourself, as Empedocles says, ‘a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness.’”
Have you ever had a moment like that? If you have, you know how special it is. You know what kind of insights you were able to access, how much happiness crept in, and how much anxiety crept out. Marcus wrote that taking these moments of stillness allows us to “concentrate on living what can be lived (the present moment).” Only then, he said, “can you spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.”
You deserve moments like that. Moments where you watch the snow fall. Moments where you sit quietly with a book. Moments where you look out the train window, not on a conference call, not checking email, not wondering how long until you arrive in the city, but a moment to check in with yourself, to think about your life and what you want to do with it. Moments with loved ones. Moments where you are grateful, connected, happy, creative, in the zone—doing whatever it is that you do best.
What these moments have in common? They are free of anxiety. The mind is clear, rejoicing in perfect stillness, as Marcus put it. You are free of the future and the past, fully present and locked in.
Take those moments. You deserve them.
We all want that quiet confidence that comes from being on the right path, as Seneca described it, and not being anxious or distracted by all those which crisscross ours.
Well, how do you get that?
It’s simple, Marcus Aurelius wrote. Stop caring what other people think. Stop caring what they do. Stop caring what they say.
All that matters, he writes, is what you do. Everything else is beyond your concern. You can let it all go. You can ignore it entirely.
We find tranquility when we stop stressing about things we cannot control, whose influence we are impotent to constrain. We find tranquility when we narrow our focus, when we look inward, when we look in the mirror. When we still the uncontrollable passions in our heads, hearts, and bodies.
Stillness, we said above, is the key to a better life. The bad news is that there is only one way to get it. The good news is that it’s easy. You just have to stop. Stop caring what they think or say or do. Start caring deeply about what you do.
Stop…and start now.
“The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” — Seneca
Even in his own time, Seneca was criticized for preaching Stoic virtues while accumulating one of the largest fortunes in Rome. Seneca was so rich that some historians speculate that major loans he made to the inhabitants of what is now Britain caused what became a horrifically brutal uprising there. His critics’ derisive nickname for him was “The Opulent Stoic.”
Seneca’s response to this criticism is pretty simple: he might have wealth, but he didn’t need it. He wasn’t dependent on it or addicted to it. Nor, despite his large bank account, was he considered to be anything close to Rome’s most lavish spenders and pleasure hunters.
Whether his rationalization was true or not (or whether he was a tad hypocritical), his is a decent prescription for navigating our materialistic and wealth-driven society, and the anxieties that come when money looms so large in our lives.
The Stoics had a pragmatic instead of a moralistic approach to wealth. Marcus Aurelius once told the Senate that he did not regard himself in possession of any of his wealth. It belongs to the people, he said, even the house I live in is not mine.
There is a tranquility that comes when we stop thinking so highly of money. When we stop thinking money is so rare. It isn’t. It is all incredibly common. Most of the people who have it are not impressive, most of the great fortunes are, in fact, the opposite of great.
Life gets a lot better when we break free from the chains of luxury. Anxiety slips away when we don’t need to make decisions that force us to continue to work and work and work and in order to get more money to pay for the things we don’t need.
Remember: humans can be happy with very little.
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” — Epictetus
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” — Seneca
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself with are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” — Epictetus
“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest—by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.” — Seneca
“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” — Epictetus
“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” — Epictetus
“The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You have power over your mind not outside events, realize this and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole…Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius