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What Leo Tolstoy Can Teach Us About Overcoming Anxiety

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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 at the time of writing War and Peace, 1868. Image source.

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 (here are my tips for reading this classic if you haven't yet).

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.

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.

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