Responding to Anxiety with Courage and a Glimmer of Hope

Aristotle

As the number one mental health issue in North America, anxiety is often a debilitating problem for both teens and adults. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that up to 25 percent of teenagers suffer from anxiety disorders. While most forms are highly treatable, the majority of sufferers do not seek professional treatment.

The relentless nature of anxiety can provide a rigorous test of character. Many sources of anxiety, such as toxic family relationships and economic hardship, give rise to a sense of hopelessness. But compassionate friends and loved ones can help those who suffer to discover the courage, wisdom, and inner strength to move forward.

Social scientific research suggests that people with anxiety often underestimate their capacity for courage. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Clemson psychologist Cynthia Pury and her colleagues make the distinction between general and personal courage. They report that when most people think about courage, they see it as a fearless and confident attribute possessed only by others. This is the definition of general courage—the type of heroic effort we recognize and praise in other people. Personal courage, on the other hand, is the type we might ascribe to ourselves. People with the self-awareness to see their personal actions as courageous tend to define courage as a response to vulnerability, anxiety, and fear. In fact, this is the type we see most often in real life. Ordinary people become heroes when they rise up to do what needs to be done — in spite of weakness.

Aristotle would likely agree with modern social science that anxiety, fear, and self-doubt are built into courage. He suggests that courage is not founded on personal strength or a feeling of invincibility. Instead, it’s built on the conviction that we’re acting in the service of a noble cause, regardless of how prepared we are for battle. According to Aristotle, knowing that we’re doing the right thing empowers us to manage the pain that frequently accompanies self-sacrifice.

Without a doubt, moving forward in the face of chronic anxiety takes courage. But taking courage is not easy when an intensely negative and overpowering emotion is flowing through our minds. Telling someone to “stop worrying” or to “have courage” is almost always misguided advice. To cultivate courage, we need at least a slight glimmer of hope. This hope can come from a trusted friend who convinces us that relationships can improve and that our personal goals are worth fighting for — even against all odds.

Many therapists recommend a simple activity to help anxiety sufferers step away from their emotions and allow the more rational part of the brain to reclaim executive control. The first step is to articulate and then write down a concrete list of things we’re worried about. Sometimes the very act of identifying what lies behind an oppressive emotion can offer immediate relief.

The second step is to separate the items in our list into two categories: things we can control and things we can’t. Most of the things we worry about include both aspects, one that’s well within our power to influence and another that’s almost entirely beyond our control. For example, if I’m worried about an upcoming test at school, I should realize that I can control how much time I study for the test. But I can’t guarantee a passing score and I can’t control what my peers or my instructor might think of me if I do poorly. If I’m worried about attending a social gathering, I can control whether I approach people with a smile and a friendly greeting. But I can’t control whether or not a stranger likes me based on her first impression.

The worries we can’t do much about are frequently the most paralyzing because they’re accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. If spelling them out on paper doesn’t help us let them go, we can try other techniques like mindfulness breathing exercises or taking a walk in nature. Whatever relaxation method we choose, at some point we need to embrace the fact that some worries impose an unreasonable burden that we can’t afford to carry.

So what about the things we can control? Recent studies on test anxiety have found that at least some stress can be a good thing. Students who tend to do well on exams learn to embrace their anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and positive mental energy. Rather than trying to stop worrying about an exam, they transform their anxiety into excitement. They commit themselves to a plan of study and then anxiously immerse themselves in what they can control. In the language of character development, they create the conditions for courage by resolving on a plan of action.

Anxiety is an urgent public health challenge with no easy solutions. But gentle encouragement and honest self-appraisal can often provide the hope we need to face our fears with courage and grace.

Online Learning as a Study in Character Development

“In front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first. But when you come to the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard.”

– Hesiod, Works and Days

Educators often warn students that online learning is not for everyone. Some students who perform well in a traditional classroom setting struggle to complete online courses. So what factors have the greatest impact on student success?

Social scientific research indicates that many students simply lack the motivation and persistence to take advantage of online resources. In this post, I’ll explore five tips that can help any student become a better online learner.

1) Find your motivation

What motivates you personally to learn online? Online courses can empower students with the advantages of greater convenience and learning efficiency, more timely feedback, and lower costs. Sometimes these benefits provide all the motivation you need to complete an online course, or even pursue an online degree.

However, the lack of face-to-face contact with a devoted instructor and mentor can be an obstacle for some students. One way to overcome this obstacle is for learners to maintain frequent contact with fellow online students. Online peers can supply valuable insights on how to work through personal challenges with technology and maintain motivation throughout a long semester. (1)

Family members can also provide vital support and encouragement when they understand the benefits of online learning. If you need additional incentives, enlist friends and family members to help you set up extrinsic rewards for persisting in the online learning process. A weekend getaway, a movie night, or another well-earned break can provide a light at the end of your online learning tunnel.

2) Courage before confidence

The courage to undertake something new often precedes confidence in doing so. This is particularly true for students who are less experienced with internet technology. When you begin an online course, it’s natural to experience self-doubt and fear.

You will need to move outside your comfort zone and embrace the risks that come with trying something new. Very few worthwhile pursuits ever come with a guarantee of success. And the fear of failure can severely limit your confidence in learning online.

But confidence and hope have never been manufactured out of thin air. This is where personal courage comes into play. A team of psychologists at Clemson University recently explored the characteristics of what they call personal courage. (2)

While we typically see in other people a fearless and confident courage, personal courage tends to be more about acting in the face of difficulty, fear, vulnerability, and anxiety. When you find and exercise your personal courage, you will begin to experience the small successes that lead to confidence in an online learning environment.

 3) Transform anxiety into excitement

Recent studies on test anxiety have found that students who do well on exams possess the ability to transform their anxieties into greater concentration and excitement. (3) These students are able to manage a moderate level of stress to help focus their minds and provide the mental energy to persist in problem solving.

Of course, high levels of anxiety over taking an online exam or using unfamiliar technology can be debilitating. Many students find relief from intense stress by identifying and writing down a list of their specific worries. Such a list can be divided into two columns: things you can control and things you cannot control.

For the things you can control, like preparing for an exam, formulate a plan for resolving the anxiety (e.g., schedule ample time for exam preparation). For things you cannot control, like having to take an exam, embrace your anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and determination to succeed.

4) Cultivate disciplined study habits

Aristotle promoted a simple idea that is as true today as it was 2,400 years ago: Human beings love to fall into routine, to cultivate deeply-rooted habits. When we develop habits, we naturally expend less mental and emotional energy in figuring out what to do and how to do it.

A set of tasks that was initially strenuous or tedious becomes natural and easy to perform. Something that was originally irksome is now pleasurable. Students who take the time to cultivate rigorous study habits learn to enjoy studying with greater ease and consistency.

Set aside a block of uninterrupted time to study every day. Avoid the distractions of cell phones, email, and social media. Wake up early in the morning or find a quiet study room during the day. By maintaining a consistent habit of studying at the same time every day, you’ll soon discover the reality of online learning pleasure.

A recent study suggests that time management skills and disciplined study habits are even more important in successful learning than favorable attitudes toward instructors or personal interest in the subject matter. (4)

 5) Persistence is more important than intelligence

This tip is perhaps the most important for online learning excellence. Becoming a more independent learner and adapting to new online technology requires persistence. Persistence is even more important than knowledge and intelligence. (5)

If you’re relatively new to online learning, then you need to expect some small failures along the way. You might stumble on your first assignment as you figure out how to access online learning resources. You might find that you need to switch to an unfamiliar web browser, or upgrade to a faster computer.

If you do face obstacles with learning technology, be sure to communicate early on with your online instructor or course administrator. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in resolving your difficulties. But whatever you do, don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and be patient with the quirks of your online course.

Some online resources are more accessible and instructionally sound than others and some learning management systems are more intuitive than others. But most online courses provide plenty of resources to help you navigate the learning process and gain the knowledge and skills you’re looking for.

Don’t hold back

It may be true that some students are more naturally suited for learning online. Some cultures might even be better than others in preparing students for the distinct rigors and study habits of online courses. (6)

But don’t fret about potential limitations that may or may not affect you. With a firm and disciplined commitment to study, the persistence to climb steep technology learning curves, and the courage to embrace risk in the face of personal limitations, you’ll personally have everything it takes to succeed.

NOTES

  1. See Carolyn Hart (2012). “Factors Associated With Student Persistence in an Online Program of Study: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.
  2. Cynthia L. S. Pury, Robin M. Kowalski & Jana Spearman (2007). “Distinctions between general and personal courage.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2 (2), 99-114.
  3. See Alison Wood Brooks (2013). “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143 (3), 1144-1158.
  4. M. J. N. Mendezabal (2013). “Study Habits and Attitudes: The Road to Academic Success.” Open Science Repository Education, Online (open-access), e70081928. doi:10.7392/Education.70081928.
  5. See Hart (2012).
  6. See Miguel A. Cerna & Ksenia Pavliushchenko (2015). “Influence of Study Habits on Academic Performance of International College Students in Shanghai.” Higher Education Studies, 5 (4), 42-55.

* A version of this article, “How to Make Online Learning Work for You,” was published in the October 2017, Fall Edition of Certification Magazine. Content republished by permission of TestOut Corporation.

Magnanimity and the Call to Greatness

In an earlier post, I contrasted Aristotelian pride with Confucian humility as the crown of the virtues. I also clarified that Aristotle does not advocate unjustified pride or arrogance any more than Confucius does. In describing Aristotle’s views in Nicomachean Ethics, I used Martin Ostwald’s English translation of μεγαλοψυχία (pronounced megalopsychia). While this word is typically translated into English as “magnanimity,” Ostwald prefers “high-mindedness” because the modern connotations of magnanimity don’t capture the “pride and confident self-respect” implied by the original Greek. In today’s post, I will reconsider magnanimity in the classical sense that communicates the “greatness of soul” inferred by Aristotle.

AristotleAristotle explains that a magnanimous man believes he deserves great things such as honor and respect because he really does deserve them. He is great both in the sense that he has obtained a fullness of virtue and in the sense that he possesses wealth, power, and influence. His abundant resources allow him to do much more good for others than they could do for him. While he willingly accepts legitimate honors bestowed by noble men, he has no interest in arrogantly displaying his superiority among ordinary people. In fact, he is self-effacing and unassuming among them. It is only in the presence of distinguished, influential men that he speaks openly of his accomplishments. Nonetheless, he is always more concerned with promoting truth and virtue than he is with impressing other people.

Aristotle’s magnanimous man spends his life doing extraordinary things, even risking his life when courage calls. One reason he’s capable of achieving greatness is that he does not squander his time or energy on trivial things. He never holds grudges, spreads gossip, or pays attention to small annoyances. Since he focuses his attention on the rare actions that are worthy of great honor, the magnanimous man is not in a hurry to fill his life with lesser accomplishments. He is never overly anxious or distracted by petty concerns. He is slow to act and deliberate in his choice of words.

Of course Aristotle’s ideal of magnanimity clashes a bit with our modern sensibilities. He sounds like someone who’s out of touch with reality, like a guy who has never done the dishes or mowed his front lawn. But before we reject such an ideal altogether, let’s consider how we might adapt at least some aspects of magnanimity today.

Aristotle emphasizes that magnanimity (or high-mindedness) is the golden mean between vanity and small-mindedness. While the vain man desires greater praise and recognition than he deserves, the small-minded man turns away from honors that he genuinely merits. Even worse, however, is the tendency of the small-minded man to shun wealth and power and to avoid performing noble deeds because he doesn’t consider himself worthy.

Surprisingly, Aristotle suggests that small-mindedness is a worse vice than vanity and that it’s much more common. When I examine my own character flaws, I’m usually more aware of my vanity. I care too much about what other people think of me. But as I reflect more honestly, I recognize that one of my biggest concerns is that I don’t want to come across as vain and prideful. If I’m honest with myself, this tendency to appear less than what I am (in order to impress others with my modesty), is often displayed as false humility or small-mindedness.

It seems evident that small-mindedness can prevent us from responding to the call to greatness. Each one of us possesses unique gifts that we’re capable of developing in the service of others. These gifts constitute our personal call to greatness or to magnanimity. We ought to strive for nothing more and nothing less. If I pretend that I am called to someone else’s greatness, to someone else’s honor, I’m vain. But if I for any reason refuse to accept my personal call to greatness (and the honors associated with this call), I’m suffering from a debilitating form of small-mindedness.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite themes is that each individual must discover and embrace his or her personal calling in life. Each person “has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion…. He inclines to do something which is easy to him, and good when it is done, but which no other man can do. He has no rival. For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers.…Every man has this call of the power to do some[thing] unique, and no man has any other call….”

When we find the courage to respond to our personal call to greatness, we’re capable of achieving magnanimity. Because we’re no longer competing with someone else’s greatness or for someone else’s honor, we’re free to pursue our own path with less anxiety, less vanity, and well-deserved praise.