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.
Here are five proven strategies for stress relief, rooted in Stoic wisdom:
Divide and conquer
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” — Epictetus
The cognitive behavioral therapist Albert Ellis openly credited Epictetus for his development of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), which holds that emotions are a product of our thoughts or cognitions. Ellis categorized thoughts as rational and irrational, and argued that the ability to control the emotion of stress depends on that distinction.
The wonderful thing about what the Stoics called “the dichotomy of control” — that is, separating the things we can control from the things we can’t — is the resource allocation it promotes. When you stop worrying about what’s not in your control, you have more time and energy to put toward the things you can influence. That’s an advantage over other people. It’s also a gift to yourself.
Stress becomes chronic and debilitating when it lingers and festers atop of inaction.
So once you determine what’s in your control, take action. Think it through: Is your stress from an overwhelming workload? Could you put a better system in place? Could you do a better job prioritizing? Could you talk to your boss and explain how you’re feeling?
Dissect the source
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” — Epictetus
Too often, we spend so much time worried about how bad things could possibly get that the experience of worrying is more stressful than the thing we’re worried about. In Letter to Lucilius, Letter XIII, Seneca observed that we have a “habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” His advice was to “not be unhappy before the crisis comes.”
On my podcast Daily Stoic, Charlamagne Tha God, host of the radio show The Breakfast Club, said that he believes in rational anxiety and irrational anxiety. “Rational is when you know why you’re afraid and anxious,” he said. “Irrational is when these thoughts just flood your mind and you don’t know where they are coming from, so you’re just scared and having a panic attack for no reason.”
Next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, let that be your cue to stop and analyze what’s happening: Where is this coming from? Am I bringing this on myself? It’s natural for stress to creep in. Just don’t let it stick around for no good reason.
Practice the worst-case scenario
“You will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.” — Seneca
Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, must have been afraid of losing his job. In his writings, he stressed about whether or not he’d be able to provide for his family. He stressed about the welfare of his family’s estates. He knew that everything could be snatched away by the “spearthrusts of Fortune.”
He also realized that underlying all these anxieties came down to just one fear: He was afraid of poverty. He was scared of what he imagined life would be like without the comforts and luxuries he’d come to enjoy. With that realization, Seneca decided to stop imagining. Instead, he “established business relations with poverty,” devising his own practice of living out this worst case scenario:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
Tim Ferriss recommends a similar practice. ”The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw off your life and control your life,” he told me.
It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a thought experiment. Seneca didn’t say to “think about” the worst case scenario — he said to practice it, live it. Stress and anxiety and fear all have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience. Make yourself familiar with the worst thing, and then ask yourself Seneca’s question: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” — Seneca
Instead of letting racing thoughts consume you, Seneca said you should “write whatever enters your head,” His evening journaling routine was essential not only for calming his mind, but also for self-improvement and personal growth.
Other Stoics were also big fans of journaling. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations consists of a collection of personal self-help notes, which he never intended to see the light of day. Epictetus encouraged his students to write down their thoughts and reflect upon their actions every day. The Stoic “keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush,” he said.
Modern science confirms there are a host of benefits from journaling. One study from Cambridge University found that journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. And research published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that writing “focused on positive outcomes in negative situations” decreases emotional distress.
Some people are intimidated about starting a journaling practice. They ask: What’s the best way to do it? What’s the best journal? What time do you do it? For how long? Forget all that. There’s no right way to do it. Just start.
Meditate on your mortality
“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” — Marcus Aurelius
The Latin phrase “memento mori” is translated in English as “Remember you must die.” More than a few people push back on the practice of thinking about death as morbid or dark. But those people miss the point. It’s not meant to make you anxious about how few days you may have left. Its purpose is the opposite: It’s to free you. To inspire you. It is the key to happiness that unlocks empowerment, gratitude, charity, and a “bonus-round” attitude every moment of every day. Memento mori is the jolt that keeps us in the present moment.
When you’re complaining over some tweet or some endlessly frustrating and incompetent coworker, memento mori can snap you out of it. When you’re scrolling and swiping, memento mori makes you consider if you could make better use of your time. When you’re stressed before giving that big talk or making that big phone call, memento mori gives you some perspective and asks, that’s what you’re stressed about?
Phrases like “Live today like it’s your last day on earth” get thrown around a lot. The problem with that approach is that people use it to promote and excuse reckless behavior. Seneca put it differently: Live today like it’s your whole life. He said he “balanced the books of life each day.” Meaning, he lived fully every 24 hours, neither stressed nor indolent, deferring nothing and doing nothing superfluous or unnecessary. He was taking it day by day.
And so, we must do the same. Today is the most valuable thing you own. It is the only thing you have. Don’t waste it on stress.