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Stoicism and How to Reduce Anxiety in Your Day to Day Living


Years ago, I practiced criminal defense law. Early in my career I represented a young teenage client who was charged with eight serious offenses. If convicted he could have gone to prison for several years. My client elected to exercise his right to a jury trial.


Most trial attorneys will tell you that the most anxious moments of the trial are not during the legal proceedings itself, but stem from the time the jury leaves to start its deliberations and the moment the clerk of the court reads the verdict. As I look back, I wonder why I had such high anxiety while awaiting the pronouncement from the clerk. Other than the jury deliberating, all anyone is doing is waiting. Partly, the anxiety is in the anticipation and not knowing the outcome. However, I also realized a major reason for the stifling anxiety was that I had no say-so or control once the jury was out of sight. That lack of control was directly correlated to the consternation I felt.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy (and for some a spiritual path), is instrumental in helping us overcome such anxiety. The Stoics note that to reduce anxiety it is important to make a distinction between what we control and what we depend on others to do that is beyond our influence. During a trial, an attorney has control over his or her trial preparation, such as thoroughly researching the case, developing the best arguments possible, and so forth. On the other hand, you have no control over what the jury does once it enters the room to deliberate its verdict. Since no one has any say on what they do behind those closed doors, why be anxious over something that you can’t do anything about?

In many of our life experiences, we may have control over processes, but not the outcomes. Consequently, we do the best we can with the parts we have power over and let go of the rest. By letting go of the rest, we can reduce a lot of unnecessary self-inflicted anxiety. For example, signing up a potential client may be beyond your control, but creating the very best proposal and presentation to the client is within your control. Getting recognition for a book that you may write is out of your control. However, writing a really great book is something you have control over. Or in my previous occupation, becoming an expert in Constitutional Law is in one’s control but being hired by the faculty at Stanford or Berkeley law school is not in one’s control. That is up to a hiring committee.


Once we make a distinction between what we can control and what we can’t, we can release attachment to that for which we have no say. As a result, our anxiety level can be substantially decreased. One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to practice once again the tried and true serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to power to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


Peace and Blessings,


James

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