Friday, 1 August 2014

What Leo Tolstoy Can Teach Us About Overcoming Anxiety

Tolstoy at the time of writing War and
, 1868. Image source.
While on a trip to the Penza region in 1869 to look at some land he was interested in buying, Tolstoy stopped overnight at a hotel in the Russian town of Arzamas. Despite feeling 'perfectly well' and tired after travelling, at two o'clock in the morning Tolstoy was gripped by an intense fear of dying and suffered a full-blown panic attack.

Tolstoy's experience of anxiety

Fellow anxiety sufferers will be able to relate to Tolstoy's description of "despair, fear and terror, the like of which [you have] never experienced before". Tolstoy wrote to his wife about this "agonising feeling", and rightly concluded: "may God preserve anyone else from experiencing it".

This experience would shake his world and his writing, and Tolstoy would set about asking himself what art truly is. From this moment, we can wave goodbye to the playfulness of Natasha Rostov and the sublimity of that "infinite sky" above Andrey on the battlefield; two of my favourite passages in War and Peace.

However, I think that these two instances precisely encompass how we can escape anxiety and access a calmer state of mind.

By turning our attention to the world around us, we can often find meaning and bliss in the most chaotic and anxious of circumstances.

Overcoming anxiety with mindfulness

It seems that Tolstoy followed his own wisdom too. In Rosamund Barlett's brilliant biography of the author, she describes how while travelling through the dense forests of the Penza region, Tolstoy would enjoy looking up to the very tops of the tall pine trees above him. 

When considering Tolstoy looking up to the sky, contemplating something greater than himself, it's hard not to think back to Prince Andrei wounded on the battlefield:

Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing – that’s all there is. But there isn’t even that. There’s nothing but stillness and peace.
When did you last look up at the sky? Let's follow Tolstoy's advice and try to be more mindful. Image source.

There's also the moment when Pierre, imprisoned for alleged arson, feels intense awe at a glorious sunset, despite his cruel captivity (we can compare this to Viktor Frankl's experience in Auschwitz). Finally, when looking up at the comet of 1812, Pierre is overwhelmed by his own tiny place on earth:

Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth...

For Tolstoy and many of his characters - especially those in War and Peace - overcoming an anxious moment may simply require looking up and getting out of our muddled headspace. By becoming mindful, we may well see our surroundings for the marvels they really are, and find some clarity and tranquility after panic and anxiety.

Tolstoy shows us that it's perfectly normal to fail and be anxious. Sometimes it's best, however, to just pause, look around and be mindful.

Bibliography and further reading:

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Sharon Henning said...

Your quotes make me want to reread War and Peace (again!) My favorite all time book. I just read Tolstoy's "A Confession" where he searches for the meaning of his life and why can't he find it through rational reasoning--or rather how he discovers why his thinking isn't as rational as he thought. Short book but very good.

Michal said...

The anxiety is almost always within us, external circumstances don't cause it automatically. I mean, two different persons can experience similar experience, but one of them feels anxiety and the other doesn't.

When you reach out, stop thinking about yourself, you destroy it. Action beats anxiety and fear.
I experienced it when I started talking to strangers.

Ticca said...

I have to thank you.
I read War and Peace a while ago and I'm a person struggling with anxiety and panic attacks often.
Like now.
I knew there was something amd that I will panic so I tried to play it down, just looking things up at my phone, filling my head with nonsense.
Like usually it didn't help.
But then I just opend your blog (it's on shortcut) and started reading. And while I read I drifted back into war and peace, started thinking like Andrej and - sort of - like you discribed Tolstoi thinking.
It didn't stopped my panic but it helped me not getting a really crazylike-crying-and-stuff-panic-attack.
I don't feel well and I know it will come back but I think I can help myself reminding me to think about/like Tolstoi.
So thanks!

tolstoytherapy said...

That's great to hear you've read and enjoyed A Confession, Sharon! I thought it was a really good short book too, with plenty of food for thought. I'd do well to read it again in the next year if I can. I always love hearing from you as a fellow Tolstoy fan!

Hannah said...

This is brilliant. I'm so glad that I happened upon your site. I've been going through a very tough time for a long time now, almost two years, and this really rings home to me. It may be what I've been looking for to help myself heal.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you so much, Hannah! I'm so glad you've found my website useful to apply to your own life - that's so rewarding to hear!

I wish you all the best with your reading, and I'm sure it will help you to pull through so much, both now and in years to come.

tolstoytherapy said...

Yes! Your comment reminds me so much of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you, Ticca! I'm so glad that this post helped you with your anxiety, even if just a little :) My anxiety has been worse than usual lately, and I've found Headspace ( to be really helpful for reducing stress and helping me to focus. It is difficult to do every day, but it certainly helps me out when I do!

Also, maybe give Marcus Aurelius's 'Meditations' a read (you can probably find it online). One of my favourite quotes from it is: “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Good luck with everything - you're certainly moving in the right direction! I think that with Tolstoy as your mentor you'll have a helping hand too ;)