Anxiety is rampant today, and about 40 million people have some kind of anxiety, be it generalised anxiety, social anxiety or another form of which there are many. Anxiety can, of course, be brought on and triggered by many different things, such as an overuse of drugs, addiction, highly embarrassing or stressful situations, or traumatic life events. Given that it is such a great problem today, it is necessary to address it and attempt to offer some solutions to this great problem.
A common technique of battling anxiety is the use of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), a technique invented by Albert Ellis, and in fact Ellis used the ideas of Stoicism to form his main ideas about CBT, particularly the thought of Epictetus, and so it is he which we will focus on here.
Anxiety, Epictetus argues, is something that arises when we desire what is beyond our control. He uses the example of a lyre player-he is only anxious about performing in front of a crowd because he wants to win the approval of the audience, something which is beyond his control. Again, we are anxious because of our great concern for the external, rather than the internal. We wish to control what is beyond our choice and power, and our reliance on the external, especially the opinions of others, is what causes us to be anxious. How do we deal with this then? Epictetus says that like a doctor diagnosing a problem with someone’s liver, one should say that a person has a problem with his desire and aversion, and that it is this which is causing anxiety. Anxiety, it seems, arises from trying to control things we cannot.
Some might say that anxiety is innate, and runs through the core of our being. We are human, and so we just are anxious. It’s a part of our nature. To a certain extent this may be true, yet there is certainly an unhealthy amount of anxiety among many people, and it is this which causes problems. We must first confront anxiety and understand whence it comes-the desire to control things we cannot. After this understanding, we must practice and train ourselves to be less anxious by actually putting ourselves in potentially anxiety inducing situations and trying to deal with them more effectively each and every time.