The Philosophy Of Anxiety (And How It Can Save You)


In this period of uncontrollable stress and overwhelming workloads, there isn’t a student that hasn’t gone through a phase of anxiety. What they don’t realize is that there is a philosophy that can help them.

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” This quote, from the American author and poet Maya Angelou, reminds us of our options when faced with oppressive and unbearable circumstances but what are we to do exactly to change our situation or at least change the way we think about our problems?


According to Elliot D. Cohen, Professor and Chair of the Humanities Department at Indian River State College, a philosophical approach to your everyday anxieties can help you to deal with them better. Anxiety, he writes in his book What Would Aristotle Do?, is a future-oriented emotion; when one is anxious, one fears a future event that might or might not happen. An example he provides is taking tests (sound familiar?): people who wish to achieve a perfect score on every test they take often find themselves completely nerve-wrecked by the time they have to pass their final exams. Yet, according to Cohen, this anxiety stems from our tendency to develop unrealistic negative outcomes of stressful situations. He categorizes such a syndrome as the “slippery slope/awfulizing/I can’t-stand-it-syndrome”. In the test example, the perfectionists extrapolate the possibility of an imperfect score on their test to a failed life (slippery slope), which they consider awful (awfulizing) leading them to detest their situation.  


This vicious circle continues until a person, in the worst case scenario, can’t take it anymore and has a mental breakdown. However, there is a solution. Cohen proposes a relatively simple psycho-philosophical task that anyone can do in order to fight anxiety. The purpose is to base one’s self on present probabilities on the outcome of his/her stressful situations; for example, how many chances there are that your life will actually be destroyed by a bad score. One is “likely to experience cognitive dissonance” at this stage of the process. Cognitive dissonance refers to when one is able to understand the irrationality of one’s negative extrapolations. However, despite the effect of cognitive dissonance, it will not eliminate people being prone, either cognitively or biologically, to worry. That is when Cohen’s philosophical remedy comes into place.


Cohen remedy is what he calls a “philosophical antidote” to help a person “to overcome irrational emotional reasoning and point[s one] towards attaining appropriate moral virtues”. In the case of anxiety, that virtue would be courage. The author reasons that according to Aristotle, “courage is the golden mean between being too afraid and not afraid enough.” This golden mean can be achieved by following the teaching of the philosopher Epictetus, who advocates for not “trying to control things that are not under [one’s] control in the first place.” In the case of test anxiety, “trying to control things that are not under one’s control” would refer to the outcomes of the future, in our example these would be the test results. Cohen proposes that after studying, the ideal thing to do is to distract yourself from the task that you have just worked on, and if your mind wanders back to worrying about the future (which it will) you should switch your thinking to the probability of the negative outcomes happening. By following this method, one avoids a complete burnout and will perform much better on their future tasks.

Cohen’s proposal to fight school anxiety is a practical and simple guide towards relaxation whose core idea is perfectly reflected in the following diagram:

The main idea about dealing with our problems today is to change the problem or to change our attitude towards the problem, as Angelou reminds us. Since being a student does not give us much power to change a deadline or to raise our GPAs (in short, to change our situation), we are left to change our attitudes. Going forward, we should think about taking time to process the events that are coming at us and intelligently evaluating whether the deadlines are significant or not in the immensity of our lives. Thus next time you stress about a challenge, just ask yourself what your antidote is.

Links to Dr. Cohen’s article and the diagram:


Alex Karapancsev ‘18


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