Power of Thought: Master fear and anxiety

Written by Urfan Ul Hassan - December 2021

Power of Thought: The story of Alexander the Great and Diogenes

Diogenes was a Greek philosopher that lived in the streets. He lived in a huge barrel and had nothing besides his philosophy. The people in the city of Corinth laughed at Diogenes, and he laughed back at them. Diogenes mocked the people for never being satisfied and always striving for money, status and power. The people were surprised at how a man like Diogenes can be happy. Thus, Diogenes became a famous philosopher in the city. The people of Corinth actually became more thankful for what they had over time as they observed Diogenes and his philosophy.

One day, Alexander the Great came to the city of Corinth. Everyone feared Alexander - he was an absolute ruler, a warrior and a king. Alexander had conquered the world and gained the title of Pharaoh of Egypt. A pupil of Aristotle himself.

The mightiest in the city went to Alexander's palace to give personal thanks for everything Alexander had done for the city. Alexander expected Diogenes to come whereas he had become a famous character in the city. However, Diogenes never came. Alexander, surprised and annoyed, went down to Diogenes to personally confront him about this matter. It is said that the Alexander's shadow alone covered the entire marketplace and the street where Diogenes was sitting. Diogenes was sitting beside his barrel reading books of philosophy.

Alexander had been a pupil of Aristotle. Alexander was thus an intelligent ruler and knew his philosophy well. Alexander informed Diogenes that it is a bold and weird move by a slave-philosopher not to come to the King himself. However, Alexander understood that Diogenes had been a helpful force in society so Alexander decided to forgive him. Not only did Alexander forgive Diogenes, Alexander wanted to reward him for his good deeds and positive influence on the city.

Alexander thus offered Diogenes a tremendous reward: anything Diogenes wished he would get instantly from Alexander himself. He could wish for a palace, unlimited money or mighty power.  

It was then Diogenes famously answered Alexander:

"Alexander! The only thing that I wish from you is that you step out of the sunlight."


Power of Thought - to use acceptance as a tool when facing anxiety and fear

Alexander had conquered the world. Diogenes had conquered himself, and thus also Alexander. Diogenes clearly understood that his response could evoke anger in Alexander and that he could be executed on the spot. Diogenes had accepted this and thus conquered his fear. Diogenes had accepted that he might die and that it might be painful, and that he himself would feel the emotion of fear in the process. He had accepted all of these thoughts, thus neutralizing them.


How to use this in everyday life

Anxiety and fear are normal and important functions in humans. Our goal is not to get rid of anxiety completely, but to have it function within a normal range. Clinical anxiety and fear that dominates over reason becomes a significant problem. PTSD, OCD, fear of heights, fear of dark, fear of spiders, panic attacks - all of these are problems of anxiety.

Your brain will become better at being anxious if you are consistently anxious. The brain learns that to be anxious is important. If you play an instrument, for example the guitar, your brain physically allocates more space for your fingertips. This is why it is important to stop being anxious, and you can use a variety of cognitive tools to stop the process of anxiety. Learning to think realistically through behavioral experiments is one tool. In this article we are focusing on acceptance of thoughts and consequences. These are also tools. These will help the brain to think realistically over time.

One has to learn how to answer the brain correctly. Acceptance is a powerful tool, for example: "it is ok if that feared scenario happens. I accept and welcome every consequence if that scenario occurs". When the feared scenario does not occur in real life, and you have not prepared for it mentally or physically, you brain learns that what-if thinking is useless. You will thus begin to become less anxious over time. Important to notice that your behavior must reflect your thoughts. If you have said "it is ok", then you cannot have a behavior that is characteristic of being afraid - checking, asking, preparing etc. The person with generalized anxiety should stop asking others if something is dangerous or not. They should try letting go of being in control, and accept the scary thoughts that occur when not in control.

Let us examine a person with social anxiety disorder. People with SAD can be anxious long before they are in a social setting. For example, if they are asked to present something in front of class or at work. The process of anxiety can start long before they are actually presenting. Many what-if thoughts and worst case scenarios are played in their minds over and over. During a presentation or in another social situation, people with SAD might try to hide that they are anxious and perform behaviors that reduce anxiety. These "security behaviors" actually worsens the anxiety in the future even if it reduces it a little during the social setting. Notice that distraction is a security behavior, and thus ought not to be used. After the social setting, many with SAD can think that they performed bad and that others now think of them negatively. They often overestimate how nervous they looked.

All security behaviors that cause anxiety to decrease before, during and after a social setting will strengthen the anxiety over time. These behaviors should be reduced through acceptance.

Acceptance as a tool to cut out security behaviors in social anxiety and panic disorder:

The individual with social anxiety or other forms of anxiety must choose to seek social settings or other feared situations, and answer their brain with "I accept and it is OK" to all thoughts before, during and after the feared situation. The individual with social anxiety might think "This won't go well, I might have a panic attack and everyone will laugh at me". Someone with panic disorder will often choose to sit close to an exit, for example at the cinema, just in case they have a sudden panic attack.

Thus the individual should answer their brain: "That might happen indeed, and you know what, it is OK if that happens. It is ok that some people might perceive me as weak. It is OK if I look and sound nervous. I will not hide this fact in my behavior. I will accept my fear and I will let it be there, I will even welcome it. It will be uncomfortable, and that is also OK." 

People with panic disorder often feel that they are not able to breathe and think that they are about to die. These people should often try to hold their breath to truly experience that it is a false alarm - they have full control over their breathing. They will start mastering their panic attacks if they stop and answer their brain with acceptance and then refrain from performing security behaviors.

"It is OK that I might die, faint or become seriously ill."
- "It is OK if I feel my heart is going to explode at the cinema - I will choose to sit far away from the exit."

The moment a person decides to answer their fears in this way and behaves in accordance with acceptance (e.g., not hiding that they are anxious), the fear will truly start to vanish over time. This will require practice and repeated exposures.

Other people that have fear of the dark, dentists, airplanes, heights, traumas etc. can in a similar fashion answer their brain while being activated:

"That monster in the dark might attack me and I might die. That is OK, indeed I'll die. It might be painful, but that is also OK."

"This plane might crash and I might die. That is a real possibility. If that happens, it is OK. It will probably cause a chain of negative events for my family. That is also OK." This person will quickly feel a reduction in anxiety.

"I want to ask that person out. Rejection will hurt. It is OK that it hurts, I will ask them out anyway."

"That person reminds me of the war in my home country, and my instinct is to avoid that person because they trigger bad memories and flashes. Hmm, If I choose to avoid that person my anxiety will worsen. I am going to try to use what the psychologist taught me: I am going to go to that person and accept that it will be uncomfortable to have those memories. I will accept all the reactions in my body. I won't run away from anything. It is all OK. I can even ask that person the time or something else."

"Everyone will laugh at me during the presentation and think I suck. It is OK. Maybe I do suck and can even laugh at myself?"

"I am afraid to take a certain risk in life. Maybe my choice is wrong and then I'll have to deal with the negative consequences. It is OK that I might make a mistake and it is OK that I will have negative consequences. It is all OK - maybe I can learn something from my mistakes."

This attitude will help in truly treating fear and anxiety. Remember that you are only truly brave if you are afraid.

Please send your thoughts and comments: urfan@filosofkongene.no