Fear is an interesting emotion. On one side of the coin, fear has been a tool that has kept our ancestors safe for thousands of years; it ignites our flight response to get us away from danger, our fight response to stand our ground, and it helps us avoid sources of pain and even premature death (always a good thing).

On the other side of the coin, this very same tool that’s been instrumental to our survival can hamstring our ability to try new things, take risks, and get out of our comfort zone to develop into more well-rounded people.

Fear, in its essence, is an emotional response to a perceived threat or danger. It is a primal instinct, hardwired into our very being, intended to protect us from harm. However, in our complex modern lives, fear often arises not from immediate physical dangers but from anxieties, uncertainties, and our interpretations of potential negative outcomes. This second source of fear is what we’ll be addressing.

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VII, (8), (c. 161 – 180 AD).

Stoicism and Fear:

To the Stoics, this fear was not seen as an external force that was imposed upon us but rather as a product of our judgments, biases, perceptions, and experiences. The real source of fear, then, the Stoics believe, is not the world around us but the beliefs and judgments we have about it.

Instead of being paralyzed by their fears, the Stoics embraced them as an inherent part of the human experience, something that is stitched into our very nature, making us who we are. They believed that our fear is not an insurmountable monster looming in the shadows, waiting to hijack our thoughts and actions, but a psychological phenomenon that we can develop the self-awareness to catch in the moment, understand, examine, and navigate with wisdom.

However, it’s important to recognize that not all fear is detrimental. After all, no one wants to get hit by a car because their fear response doesn’t keep them from walking on the highway. The Stoics did not suggest that we should strive to eliminate fear altogether. Instead, they saw rational fear—fear that acknowledges genuine danger and promotes sensible caution—as an essential tool for survival. What they warned against was irrational fear—fear that is rooted in false judgments and misconceptions, causing unnecessary anxiety and distress.

The belief that fear arises in the mind as a product of our perception means that fear is simply a reaction we have when we believe that there is a risk of us being harmed, experiencing loss, or things not going the way we want them to. Seneca, a renowned Stoic philosopher, captured this sentiment when he wrote, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Imagine, for a moment, standing on the edge of a steep cliff. The sheer drop will probably cause some fear. But is it the cliff itself that causes the fear? The Stoics would argue that it’s not the cliff but our own perception of falling that gives rise to the fear. When we change our perception and acknowledge that standing securely at the edge won’t lead to falling, the fear diminishes.

“Great men rejoice in adversity, just as brave soldiers triumph in war.”

– Seneca The Younger, “De Providentia” by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus as reported in “Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations” by Jehiel Keeler Hoyt, p. 9-10., 1922.

To overcome fear, the ancient Stoics believed that we needed to examine our fears, hold them up to the light, and decide whether or not they were reasonable and we were right to be worried, or if they were unreasonable and caused by a false perception of the subject. The belief that we can work through fear is the first step towards transforming our relationship with it, shifting from being victims of fear to becoming navigators of a complex emotion.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p.116

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Rule 1: The Practice of Objective Judgement

Often, our ability to make judgments about what we experience is seen as the characteristic that separates us as humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

However, it is exactly this ability to reason that gives rise to a double-edged sword: on the one hand, we can leverage this ability to navigate complex problems, plan for the future, create stories, and connect seemingly unrelated strands of information to add context to the world around us. On the other hand, our judgments can become clouded by bias; we create false connections where there are none; our reality becomes warped by misconception; and much of this misshaping of life can lead to unnecessary suffering and distress.

But how does this apply to fear? As we’ve mentioned, a large part of fear comes from the perceptions we have of the world rather than the world itself, and given that this is true, it’s easy to draw a line between false judgment and the emergence of internal fears.

The antidote to this comes in the form of objective judgment, or our ability to see the world for what it is rather than a world warped by our own judgments and perceptions. Through the practice of objective judgment, we strip away the layers of distortion, fabrication, and exaggeration and reduce the things around us to their bare facts.

“That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the universe, therefore the universe exercises reason.”

– Zeno of Citium, De Natura Deorum. Book by Cicero, II. 8.; III. 9,

Imagine you’re about to give a public speech, and you find yourself gripped by fear. The fear might stem from thoughts like, “I’ll forget my lines” or “People will judge me”. These are not facts, but speculative judgments that magnify the potential for harm or embarrassment and induce fear. Now, apply objective judgment. The fact is, you’re simply speaking to a group of people, nothing more. All the additional fearsome details are products of your mind, not the situation.

Applying objective judgment does not mean ignoring the possible outcomes. It means assessing the situation based on facts, not catastrophic predictions or unfounded assumptions. It encourages you to discern between what’s really happening and what your mind fears might happen.

Over time, this practice gets easier; we learn to catch our judgments in the act and reject them, and it slowly begins to happen naturally without us even thinking about it.

“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.”

Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Mannual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, p.4, Harper Collins

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Rule 2: the Power of Negative Visualization

There is another technique that might seem counterintuitive at first glance. And while, alone, it may increase the feeling of fear instead of lessening it, when used with objective judgment, it can help us face the very things we fear, and come away with the knowledge that we can pass through them undisturbed.

Negative visualization is the Stoic technique known as ‘premeditatio malorum’, which means ‘the premeditation of evils’. It is the practice of looking into our future, deliberately visualizing worst-case scenarios, and learning to come to terms with them if they do in fact come to pass.

On the face of it, this practice can be seen as overly pessimistic and even counterproductive, but when used properly, the Stoics believed it to be a powerful tool to manage our fear and build resilience to it.

The idea behind the method is that by imagining potential negative outcomes, we can accept them as outside our control, familiarize ourselves with them, and decrease their ability to trigger fear and negative emotion. Often, when we visualize these kinds of things, we realize that we’ll be OK even if they occur. We might get hit with a setback or some embarrassment, but in the grand scheme of things, we’ll be OK.

Let’s say you have a performance review at work, the company is downsizing, and you fear losing your job. You can use negative visualization to imagine the scenario in detail; you can think about the moment you receive the news, the financial implications, and the process of searching for a new job. When you spend some time thinking about it, you’ll likely begin to realize that while it would be challenging, it’s also survivable and perhaps even laden with opportunities for growth and opportunity.

Rule 3: Practicing Acceptance

The ancient Stoics also promoted the idea of acceptance. In the Stoic sense, acceptance is our ability to look at, see, and come to terms with the things around us that we have no control over.

I will state at this point that acceptance is not the same as passive surrender or submission to the world around us. It is simply our ability to look at our situation objectively and accept that it is the way it is, rather than waste time wishing it were different. From here, we can move forward with a clear map of our terrain, focusing on our own actions and what we can control.

The development of our ability to accept comes hand in hand with our ability to reduce resistance to the things in life we have no control over. This resistance can often come in the form of fear.

We can think of a simple process to illustrate the idea. Imagine the following two scenarios:

  1. We’re on our way to a friend’s birthday party, and we get stuck in traffic. Pulling up to the traffic, we get the feeling we’re going to be late and feel the first flickering of frustration. Five slow minutes go by, and our satnav is now telling us we’re going to be an hour late. The flickering of frustration has now been fanned into anger, and we sit in traffic fuming at the world we can’t control.

  2. We’re on our way to a friend’s birthday party, and we get stuck in traffic. Being late is not something that we want, but we know that traffic is part of the nature of driving; to expect never to come into contact with it is unreasonable. We also know that the traffic is outside the reach of our control. Within our control is how we respond to it. So we accept the situation and look to see what we can do. We message our friend, saying that we might be a bit late, and we put a podcast on to pass the time.

If we take small moments like this and multiply them across a lifetime, it’s easy to see how acceptance can lead to a happier, less stressful, and less fearful life.

Consider as well the fear of rejection. You might fear applying for a job or asking someone out on a date because they might say no. The rejection itself is not within your control; it depends on the other person’s decisions, which are beyond your influence. By accepting this, you acknowledge that rejection is a possibility, but it doesn’t reflect your worth or diminish your abilities. Acceptance, in this case, helps to reduce the fear of rejection.

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Rule 4: Cultivate Mindfulness and Presence

Mindfulness has become an increasingly attractive method of managing our minds as the world around us becomes increasingly noisy, fast-paced, and distraction-ridden. However mindfulness in the Stoic practice is not limited to a meditative practice, it is also a way in which we are encouraged to be fully present, alert and engaged with our lives. Not held in the past as we replay the things we have done or been through, nor stuck wondering about the future, but present in the now, absorbing the experience of the moment.

The ancient Stoics believed that many of our fears come from dwelling on the events of the past or trying to predict what may happen in the future.

In the words of Seneca, “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

It is the nature of the mind to wander into a maze of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys’, but there are the very things that have a tendency to cause fear, anxiety, regret, and a host of other negative emotions.

The use of mindfulness in this context is the antidote to the wandering mind. Mindfulness roots us in the here and now, keeping us connected to the real and the tangible and preventing us from drifting away into projected possibilities of the future or the regrets of the past. This doesn’t mean we ignore the past or the future, but that we approach them from a place of grounded presence and deliberate thought, rather than fearful anticipation or regretful rumination.

Imagine you have a fear of public speaking and are about to deliver a presentation. Your mind might be quick to jump to imagined scenarios, such as forgetting your lines or making a mistake. Or it may drift to past experiences when your performance wasn’t up to par. These thoughts fuel fear. But if you bring your attention back to the present—to your breath, the words you’re speaking, and the response of the audience—you can reduce the power of that fear.

Being mindful also allows us to notice the rise and fall of our emotional states, including fear. We can observe our fears without becoming swept up in them, allowing us to respond with greater clarity and calmness. This detached observation of our emotions is a practice the Stoics called ‘prosoche’, a form of attentive mindfulness, observing our sensations, emotions, and thoughts, focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.

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