BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

Anxiety – which is viewed as a strong desire or concern to do some – thing; or for something to happen – often results in people feeling overwhelmed and helpless. It’s demonstrated through stress, worry and physical changes such as increased blood pressure.

Reinhold Niebuhr was an American Reformed theologian and ethicist in the 20th century. A popular Christian petition that’s attributed to him is called the ‘Serenity Prayer’ and it goes like this: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Greek philosopher Epictetus had advice along similar lines: ‘That alone is in our power, which is our own work and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. What, on the contrary, is not in our power are our bodies, possessions, glory and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes and troubles.”

This idea that we can’t control what’s happening around us and can only control how we react to it is fundamental to our under standing of anxiety. Of course, if what’s happening around us is something we can change, we should realize this – and be courageous and re source full enough to change it for the better.

But what’s vital for our psychological well being is having the wisdom to know what we can challenge and what’s beyond our power to change. Otherwise, we tend to worry too much about what we can’t alter and anticipate the worst. We then become overwhelmed by situations and are unable to do even what we’re capable of doing.

There are far too many patients in the world who struggle with anxiety. They make themselves ill by stressing over things that are completely outside their area of control.

When you experience anxiety, you constantly scan the environment for potential threats and hazards. And when you find such a threat, you become obsessed by it. If you aren’t anxious, you’d be able to look at the threat or hazard objectively and realise that it’s not really a big deal.

However, anxiety will cause you to fixate on the problem and worry about it until you come up with an emergency plan in order to take control of the situation.

Of course, this works well until you face a problem that’s outside your area of control and your brain goes into crisis mode. This is particularly difficult if you feel that all problems or potential problems need to be fixed by you; and don’t realize that you aren’t responsible for fixing everything.

It is important that you are able to train your brain to respond differently – either by the nature of your personality or with the help of appropriate therapy. You need to learn to understand the difference between the problems you’re responsible for and those that aren’t yours to solve.

And it’s important to differentiate between problems that are within your sphere of influence and those that are beyond it. If you don’t do this, you’ll spend your entire life struggling with problems that you can’t solve.

As Epictetus observed over 2,000 years ago, it’s only our opinions and desires that we can control – our possessions, power and even our bodies are outside our control.