A Stoic Response to Fear

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” – Seneca

Maybe you are facing a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off for months. Or you’re about to embark on a new project that tests you to your limits. Or it could be a job change, moving to a new city, starting a relationship—any of those can provoke fears and anxieties that pin you down and you can suddenly feel trapped before the situation even unfolds.  

It is a timeless truth that many of the things we worry about never come to happen. But our imaginary fears can have real consequences. Fear will cloud your reality, and like other extreme emotions such as anger, will cloud your vision and obscure what is really going on. The grips of fear can be paralyzing.

How do you take back control? How do you go back to your effective self ready to face whatever challenge comes next?

First, you must begin with one of the most important practices in the Stoic tradition: the premeditation of evils. What is the worst that can go wrong…the absolute worst? Study that. Feel it in your bones and skin. Understand what it will look and taste like. Good. Now you’ve removed the surprise and some of the fear. You’ve readied yourself for the worst. As Seneca put it best, “the man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.”

Now comes preparation: What can do you do to prepare yourself? What options do you have when the worst case happens? How can you prevent it from happening? What can you do today to reduce the chances of the worst happening? If it does happen, how can you bounce back? Write it all down on paper and think it through.

These steps—clarifying your fears, imagining the worst case scenario, brainstorming and strategizing to prevent whatever may come—are the key tools in entrepreneur and bestselling author Tim Ferriss’s “fear setting” exercise inspired by Seneca and Stoicism, which you can study by watching his widely popular TED Talk.

Next, you must embrace practice.

Think of Cato, one of our most preeminent stoics, would walk around barefoot and with minimal clothing, in heat and cold. Why? He was training himself for a life in which he might have to experience poverty. He was, of course, a Roman aristocrat; he’d probably never become penniless. But he didn’t want to fear it at all, so he lived, in brief increments, a penniless life. And that simple exercise gave him an uncommon strength—the ability to have experienced and prepared for and thought about a trouble robbed that trouble of all its power over him.

Soldiers know how to shoot to kill—so why do they train for being on the receiving end of gunfire? The same reason a company does “war gaming” against its competitors. The same reason football players practice fumble recovery and give reps to their backup quarterback. When you can study and learn from what has failed in the past, or prepare for what might fail in the future, you reduce your fear.

Firefighters train night and day to enter burning buildings. Police officers shoot hundreds of rounds at firing ranges to make sure they are ready when crisis happens. Special operators around the country train for hostage rescue situations, playing out over and over again the remotest possibility of an adversary capturing one of our own.

Preparing for what may come is how you know, entering a situation fraught with uncertainty and chaos, that you are ready. That you have done your best preparing. This is how you take control of your fear.  

Think of practice as immunity: Immunity to fear; immunity to weakness; immunity to your own sense of doubt and hesitation. Practice even what you think you can’t do, and you might find that you have more capacity than you considered possible.

In short, this is blueprint that you require to take control over fear: 1) What is the worst that can happen? Write it down. Feel it. 2) Ask how you can prevent it and journal solutions. 3) Practice reduces fear: do whatever is necessary to know that you have steadied yourself and prepared with all of your effort.  

In conclusion, you’ve probably heard the “nothing to fear but fear itself” sound bite that FDR gave in his famous speech, but the full line is worth reading because it applies to many difficult things we face in life: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The Stoics knew that fear was to be feared because of the miseries it creates. The things we fear pale in comparison to the damage we do to ourselves and others when we unthinkingly scramble to avoid them. An economic depression is bad; a panic is worse. A tough situation isn’t helped by terror— it only makes things harder.

And that’s why we must resist it and reject it if we wish to turn this situation around.

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SEE ALSO:

A Stoic Response to Anger

A Stoic Response to Success

A Stoic Response to Pain


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