Anxious to End Anxiety?

anxiety personified in a painting by James Sant (1820-1916) entitled Courage, Anxiety and Despair: Watching the Battle (c.1850)

Epistle 12. Posted on 2019-03-29. Edited on 2019-04-01.

Anxiety is often described as an emotion and characterized as the experience of distress with respect to something uncertain, usually in the future. Although emotion may certainly accompany anxiety, the root of the problem is a pattern of reasoning, of judgment. I will demonstrate what anxiety is, and discuss briefly what must be done to overcome it.

Anxiety and its close cousin, worry, both involve a desire to avoid a stressor or stressful event that is beyond one’s control. When the stressor is in the future, it is defined here as worry, and otherwise it is anxiety.

Both anxiety and worry involve a contradiction, which in this case is a desire regarding something beyond one’s control. This problem reduces to the desire to have some control over something uncontrollable. Nobody is ever anxious or worried about something within their control, such as their own judgment. Epictetus asserted that nobody worries about whether or not they will agree with lying, for example, because that judgment is entirely within their control. Think of it this way:

Both I know that something is beyond my control, and I desire that something to be a certain way, anyway.

And this reduces to:

Both I know that something is beyond my control, and I desire that it is controllable (and hence avoidable or preventable).

This anxious response to the world results in a mental commotion, a mental conflict of two opposing motions, oscillating back and forth between desiring that a stressor does not occur, and acknowledging that there is no control over the stressor. Obviously, if the stressor could be controlled, it could be eliminated, and there would be no mental conflict. This mental conflict is uncomfortable and unpleasant, to say the least; it is something like being torn apart, but from the inside-out. Acknowledging a lack of control over the stressor may also feed the desire that the stressor does not occur, which creates a vicious cycle of mental commotion, sometimes involving racing thoughts. The sufferer simply wants the mental commotion to stop, the mental conflict between what is and what is desired.

As an example, worried Wendy is promoted at work, but imagines the worst case scenario in which everything goes wrong. However, there are many possible outcomes, ranging from getting everything wrong to everything right. Rather than approaching it with peace of mind as an opportunity to learn and experience something new, as a chance to improve herself by overcoming new and unexpected hurdles, as a chance to benefit others, worried Wendy sacrifices her peace of mind in favor of considering everything that can go wrong. It is one thing to consider possible outcomes, but it is another to suffer. And she suffers over the unknown, rather than rejoices in it. She suffers over possible futures that are uncontrollable. To quote Seneca (Epistle 98): He suffers more than is necessary who suffers before it is necessary. And for worried Wendy, such future suffering may not be necessary at all. The difference between merely considering an event and suffering from it lies within her disposition toward that event. Unfortunately, worried Wendy has opted to suffer, but would never describe it that way. She simply needs some help with reasoning about uncertain events.

When anxiety is the topic in philosophical counseling, and specifically in Stoic Therapy, the main goal is to end the anxiety. To fulfill this goal, there are two broad areas of focus: how to change one’s perspective, and how to influence the stressor or stressful situations. Most likely, each will receive some focus, but the emphasis is on using formal reason to change one’s perspective. When we focus on changing perspective, we focus primarily on dismantling the reasoning that falsely supports the idea that it is reasonable to desire to control something uncontrollable, the stressor itself or the outcome of some stressful event. On the other hand, in some cases the focus may be on the event itself, and we will instead focus on decision-making skills in the context of a dilemma, such as should you x or not-x with respect to the stressor.

By demonstrating that anxiety involves a contradiction, one consequence is that every instance of an anxious thought is unreasonable. In contrast, the mental health industry has attempted to draw an arbitrary line between what is a normal amount of anxiety, and what amount constitutes a medical problem and results in a diagnosis of mental illness. Arbitrary rules are invented such as considering if x events happen in six months, for example. But when anxiety is understood to be self-contradictory, no such contradictory thought is acceptable, regardless of how common or rare it is, and regardless of whether it happens once only or whether it constitutes a pattern. And all the medication in the world cannot correct a pattern of faulty judgment. So let’s address the root cause rather than apply a band-aid.

Ending anxiety is much more involved than merely learning to recognize that an anxious thought is contradictory. These thoughts result in mental conflicts between contradictory ideas, and these conflicts are unpleasant because they are difficult to resolve. Experiencing these mental conflicts seems merciless, as the mind oscillates back and forth due to contradiction, unable to settle on a clear solution that resolves the contradiction and offers peace of mind. And, anxious thoughts stimulate emotions. The quest to end your anxiety requires time, it requires hard work to change your perspective, and it is hard work to learn to apply a new way of reasoning to specific things in your life. Counseling services are here to help.

On the bright side, these methods of improving reasoning and judgment also lead to lasting happiness, and to the good emotions such as gratitude and love, and to joy and wonder.

You can play pin the tail on the donkey with someone who wants to interpret anxiety as being primarily a medical problem of a mentally ill person, or we can work together toward improving reason and judgment, toward seeing the world in a new and better way, and as a consequence, toward ending anxiety. I look forward to meeting you.

Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for Farewell),

Ron Hall

Ron Hall

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