When bad things happen to anxious people

Months ago when I started learning about Stoic philosophy, it was supposed to be just an experiment. I’ve been researching life philosophies and naturalistic spirituality for about a year now, looking for bits and pieces that make sense, cobbling together the beginnings of a system for myself.

Then, about two weeks after I decided to track and share my progress with a blog, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Whump.

Suddenly my fledgling personal philosophy is carrying a much heavier load. And yet, things are generally holding together. Things are, at least, not falling entirely apart.

I’ve heard people speculate that having chronic depression or anxiety can actually help you get through Bad Times, because you’re essentially already programmed for feeling like shit. I guess this might sort of be true. But I think the key is whether or not you have tools in place to deal with your chronic mental dickery.

This is the main role philosophy and spirituality play for me. They keep the less helpful parts of my brain from overpowering everything else. Stoicism allows me to turn my anxiety into just one part of an adaptive system for thinking about my life.

In ancient times, a good Stoic was supposed to make a habit of imagining tragic or just unpleasant stuff that might happen to them. The idea is to become used to upsetting things before they occur, and also to help you take full notice of all the non-upsetting things you’ve currently got going for you.

People who deal with recurrent anxiety have a leg up on this particular philosophical practice. Anxious people can negatively visualize like goddamn champions.

The first Stoic skill I learned was to notice those moments of virtuoso negativity and immediately pretend I was doing it on purpose. “Good job with that negative visualization!” I tell myself, as if standing stock-still in the kitchen panicking about hypothetically crashing my car off a bridge is a completely sensible thing to be doing.

bridge
not this bridge

The trick works, though. I start to think about the anxiety the way a Stoic might: is this a reasonable thing to worry about? If so, can I do anything at all to prepare for it? If not, what’s a better way to spend my thoughts, right now in this moment?

The Stoic Epictetus tells us there are some things that are up to us, and other things that aren’t. I’ll probably always have anxiety (about bridges, and about many other things as well). It’s part of the way my brain works. But I can learn skills to help me manage it.

So, now I have cancer, which is certainly a real thing to worry about. Luckily for me, I’ve already had to learn ways to live with worry, with fears both founded and bizarre, with dark and seeping emotions that submerge my life if I let them. I’m used to having to ask myself what I can do right now, this very minute, and to letting the rest go.

That’s the beauty of creating your own system for examining and directing your life. A system you craft yourself is always adapted to you. And to the murkier quirks of your brain that sometimes, when you least expect it, turn out to be gifts.

 

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