These 5 Stoic Strategies Will Help You Slay Your Stress
Stress is part of life. But suffering because of stress? To the Stoics, that was a choice.
“It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal — if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad?” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.33
Life has always been hard. Even in the ancient world, there were children to raise, debts to pay, and terrible bosses. People got sick. They committed to too much.
Stress was a fact of life. But suffering because of stress? To the Stoics, that was a choice.
They mastered the discipline of perception, the ability to see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are: neither good nor bad. Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations: “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
In modern times, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed what the Stoics knew intuitively: Stress isn’t something that happens to you. We say things like “my boss is making me stressed” or “this project is making me stressed” or “this stack of dirty dishes is making me stressed.” But no one, nothing, is actually making you stressed. All those things are simply stressors.
“Stress is your physical and mental reaction to what you perceive is happening,” the physician and stress-management educator Cynthia Ackrill explained on the Chase Jarvis Live Show, a podcast about creativity. “Whenever our perception doesn’t meet our expectations, we feel stressed.”
Stoicism teaches us how to resist the temptation to succumb to the stresses that follow stressors. That’s why the pages of Marcus Aurelius’s private journal are filled with notes to himself on how to “escape anxiety” and to not be controlled by his temper. It’s why Epictetus talked to his students over and over again about focusing on what was in their control and nothing else. And it’s the reason Seneca’s letters are constant reminders to not suffer before it is necessary.