How Philosophy, Yes Philosophy, Can Help You With Anxiety

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II came to philosophy seeking relief from melancholy and anxiety. But after years of study, as a student and a philosophy professor, I still have these feelings. I now believe that anxiousness is a crucial aspect of the human condition, and I must live with it — it’s a vital component of my ever-evolving self.

I hope philosophy can be of similar service to you. I think philosophy can help you accept that we will always feel anxiety. More importantly, it can help you understand that we don’t have to be anxious about being anxious.

Here are three simple truths that I think show how:

Anxiousness forces you to face reality

Consider the four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which the Buddha offered to his disciples as antidotes to this world’s perplexities:

  1. There is suffering in this world.
  2. This suffering has an identifiable cause.
  3. This suffering can be eased.
  4. Here is how you do so.

Buddhism’s First Noble Truth notes the undeniable, acute human dissatisfaction with existence. The Buddha then notes that our first step toward relief, as expressed by his Second Noble Truth (that our suffering has a cause), is a true, unblinking understanding of the nature of the world and of human existence’s place in it: If we misunderstand the nature of the world, we will be anxious, and suffer, in ways far worse than need be.

Think about falling ill and how gathering information about your illness and how to treat it changes the actions you take to stay healthy. Such correct information can increase anxiety. But false beliefs on this, or any other topic, can be harmful and damaging.

You have to entertain the correct beliefs about the world and your place in it, then, in order to arrive at an appropriate state of mind to reckon with the world’s often intractable challenges. There is no point in pessimistically retreating from the world, either through our actions or by entertaining self-deluding beliefs about it. We must unflinchingly accept the world as it is, flaws and all. Among the facts about the world we must accept is the nature of the human condition.

Anxiousness confirms you’re evolving

In 1901, American philosopher and psychologist William James described his anxiety as “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach… a sense of the insecurity of life.” The profound “insecurity” James speaks of is generated by two foundational facts about the human condition James held true:

  1. We — even the wisest and most knowledgeable of us — are uncertain of what the future will bring; and
  2. This uncertainty is facilitated and enhanced by the choices we make, by the freedom we enjoy.

Soren Kierkegaard, patron saint of existentialism, claimed our freedom of will and choice makes us responsible for our self-creation: a new self. But to evolve, we must destroy an older self. This freedom to construct ourselves promises us relief from a future written out and determined for us. But this existential freedom comes with a price: To be free is to experience anxiety because we must reckon with the uncertainty of outcome and consequence associated with our actions and choices — and those of others.

For Kierkegaard, anxiety informs us of the possibilities of our new lives, of the uncertain and not-yet-decided future to be determined by us. We experience our freedom as a condemnation and a blessing alike; we must make choices freely in order to experience our lives.

Anxiousness makes you curious

The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, “Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things.” In other words: You’re anxious, so you look for answers, for ways to remove your ignorance.

Every expression of our inquiring natures, which we take to be fundamental to ourselves, is an expression of our anxiety. We would not be anxious if we were not curious. If we wish to remain inquisitive, to take on the most enriching aspect of the human condition, we must be willing to live with the anxiety that goes with it.

S,S, it turns out philosophy can help us live with the anxiety that is part and parcel of critical thinking, of choosing freely. Our search for knowledge pushes back the unknown that encroaches, making the world more predictable — and making us less anxious.

And as we continue to live at the edge of the unknown, anxiety is a kind of guide. Its nature informs us of the directions we may seek relief in, the trajectories of lives we may live, the new self that awaits us as we move through our own imperfect life, tackling its challenges as they arise.

We will always be anxious in some measure. It’s what informs us that we are human, curious, and free.

Professor of Philosophy, Brooklyn College; blogger at; @eyeonthepitch

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