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 unwillingly became more thankful for what they had as they observed Diogenes.

One day, Alexander the Great entered 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 world. Alexander expected Diogenes to visit the palace since he had become a famous philosopher in the city. However, the philosopher never visited the palace. Alexander, surprised and possibly annoyed, went down to Diogenes to personally confront him about this matter. Diogenes was sitting in the sun, philosophizing over existence. It is said that Alexander's shadow alone covered the entire marketplace where Diogenes was residing.

Alexander had been a pupil of Aristotle and was himself a student of philosophy; he respected philosophy and knew the ultimate power behind it. Alexander recognized that Diogenes had been a helpful force in society. Therefore, Alexander decided to forgive Diogenes. Not only did Alexander forgive Diogenes, but Alexander also wanted to reward him for his virtue and positive influence.

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

 Diogenes famously answered Alexander:

"The only thing that I wish from you is that you step out of my 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 therefore conquered his fear. Diogenes had accepted that he might die and that it might be painful. He had accepted all such thoughts, leaving them powerless and neutralized.

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. 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, for example learning to think realistically through behavioral experiments. In this article we are focusing on acceptance of thoughts and feared outcomes. This is a powerful cognitive tool that can help the brain to think realistically over time.

When the brain reacts with anxiety, for example "what if X happens?", it is important to answer the brain correctly; acceptance could look like this: "It is ok if X feared scenario happens. I accept and welcome every consequence if such an outcome is realized". When the feared scenario does not occur in real life, and you have not prepared for it mentally or physically, your brain learns that what-if thinking is useless. You will thus begin to become less anxious over time. It is important to notice that your behavior must reflect your thoughts. If you have thought "it is ok", then you cannot have a behavior that is characteristic of being afraid - checking, asking, preparing and alike. The person with generalized anxiety should stop asking others if something is dangerous or not. This is an attempt to gain control. Rather, they should try letting go of control, and accept the feared outcomes.

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 the presentation is to take place. Many what-if thoughts and worst-case scenarios are played in their minds over and over. During a presentation, people with SAD might try to hide that they are anxious and perform behaviors that reduce anxiety in the short-term. These "security behaviors" actually worsen anxiety in the future even if it reduces it during the social setting. After the social setting, many with SAD can think that they performed badly and that others now think negatively of them. 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. They must answer their brain with "I accept the feared consequences" to all thoughts before, during and after a scary 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". People 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.

The individual should answer their brain: "My feared outcomes might be realized, and it is totally OK. Indeed, people might perceive me as weak and incompetent during my presentation. It is fine if I look and sound nervous. I will accept my fear and not try to escape from the social situation or the emotion of fear. Surely, it will be uncomfortable, and that is also fine."

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, the fear will start to vanish over time. This will require practice and repeated exposures.

Other people that are afraid of the dark, dentists, airplanes, heights and alike can in a similar fashion answer their brain while being activated by fear:

"That monster in the dark might attack me and I might die. That is OK, maybe that will happen. It might be painful, and that is also OK. I will not leave the dark until I am calm."

"This plane might crash, and I might die. That is a real possibility. If I die, it will cause an extreme burden for my family. I do not want to avoid travelling by plane my entire life, so I accept all negative outcomes and feared scenarios." 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."

"Everyone will laugh at me during the presentation and think I suck. Maybe I do suck and can even laugh at myself? I can improve my skills and learn from my mistakes."

"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 and practice will help the brain to automatically think realistically over time.