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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

What Stoics Can Teach Us About Mental Health

Stoicism has much in common with today’s cognitive behavioral therapy.

You’ve probably heard about stoics and if you have, your image of them probably involves a lot of keeping that stiff upper lip, enduring vast amounts of pain without complaint. But this is not who the stoics were; actually they have much in common with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Here are some of things that stoicism can teach us about good mental health:

1: Control what you can control

This idea is always in any list of ancient or current wisdom, anything that has serenity in the title. The starting point, of course, is knowing what you can control and what you can’t — you can’t control others, you can control yourself, your behaviors. Once you’ve figured this out, Part B is actively controlling what you can control — act decisively on your decisions, your problems, and then let go of the rest.

This is powerful stuff because so much frustration often comes from trying to get others or hoping for others to do that which you have absolutely no direct control over — their actions and reactions, their opinions, their decisions. Sure, you can influence people to some limited extent, but your power ends there. By mentally clearly drawing lines between what’s in your power and what’s not, your frustration goes down, you’re more in control of your life because locus of control is smaller, simpler. What’s not to like?

2: Choose your attitude

An important element of this control business is also realizing that even though you can’t control whatever life may throw at you — an illness, a job layoff, the breakup — you and only you can control your attitude, your judgements, the story of what these challenges mean. This is the basis of the cognitive part of CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and rational emotive therapy (RET). This is how to move between your emotional mind and wise mind, between your rational and irrational anxiety.

The key here is realizing that all events in your life are essentially neutral and only become colored by what story and judgments you tie to them (a breakup can make you a victim or finally end what has been a hurtful experience; the illness can be life screwing you over, or a valuable wake-up call about your lifestyle and your priorities). Here you have both choice and control. Rather than automatically looking at life and problems through the same lenses that you always have, which have inevitably led to the same emotional conclusions, you can instead consciously and deliberately choose to try out new ones. This is what good therapy essentially tries to do. Being able to choose your reactions, say the stoics, is not a matter of personality, but development of a mental skill that, like other skills, gets better with practice.

3: Want what you get

This is taking judgments one step further. Many of us have learned to look at our relationship to life as a battle. It, life, is always out to get us, it’s one damn thing after another, we’re always on the alert for the next shoe to drop, the next crisis to take over. But, say the stoics, we don’t have to adopt this adversarial approach. Instead we can choose to look at our lives as working for us, leading the way, teaching us what it is we most need to learn.

If we believe that life is not working against us but for us, if we essentially want what we get rather than constantly fighting against it, our lives are filled with opportunities. Problems become potential lessons that can ultimately help us realize what we need, reach our potential, navigate everyday life more smoothly.

4: Combine emotion with reason

Stoics make a distinction between emotions and feelings. Feelings are those sensations that can overwhelm us, create angst and despair, and generally pass quickly like a fast-moving storm. Emotions are longer-lasting, gut reactions (trust your gut) that are valuable information about everyday wants and needs. Ideally you want to use emotions as information, and combine them with reason — emotions as the base of information, then run them through the filter of reason to figure out how to put that information into practice. Again, this is the basis of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

5: Live in the present

Stoics want us to be aware that death is always around the corner, and so it’s important to appreciate and savor the present.

6: Take risks

Taking risks does not mean being foolhardy and reckless but being willing to expand your comfort zone. Reaching your potential involves doing things you haven’t done before, moving forward in spite of your understandable anxiety. By doing so you not only expand your world, but expand your self-image and self-confidence. It isn't always about having to jump off the high platform at the pool; you can choose what risks to take, as long as you move forward and take them.

7: Plan for the worst

This is about anxiety. When you are worried, your mind naturally runs down endless rabbit holes of “what if.” Rather than letting these obsessive thoughts continue to run and torment you, jump ahead. What’s the worst that can happen? Lock in on that, decide what is rational or irrational, and then come up with a game plan to put this worse-case scenario to rest.

This is an excellent anxiety management tool. By mapping out a plan for your worse-case scenario, you are not only prepared, but can feel more in control — you know what can do if the worse happens, allowing you to mentally push it aside and out of your head.

8: Step back, get perspective

More good advice. When faced with most everyday problems, your stress creates tunnel-vision, making the current problem the most important and biggest problem in the world. Stepping back is taking a deep breath, asking yourself what can I control here, but then putting the problem in a larger perspective — that this is first-world, not a third-world, matter-of-life-and-death problem. By doing this you break the tunnel vision, realize everything is not equally a priority even though it may feel so at the time. Another skill to be developed and practiced.

9: Review your life

Reviewing your life is taking yet another step back to see the even larger picture. Here the focus is one of looking for the positives — what you are thankful for and appreciate, what is life teaching you about you and life. This has been shown to be effective in combatting depression. By taking 10 minutes and writing down all the positive things that have happened in the day, you not only break out of the tunnel-vision of depression, but you are training your brain to be ever more sensitive to the small things that are positive in life but all too easily get overlooked.

10: Live your values

Finally, stoics place a lot of value on…values — your principles, what you use to guide your life, you deciding the type of person you want to be. These are different from "shoulds" and rules that you may inherit from your parents, your culture. They are chosen by you, and you are responsible for putting them into practice daily.

The key here is again deciding what those values are; deciding and imaging the person you want to be and become, different from your parents, your siblings, those around you. You seeing yourself as the creator of your own present and future.

Like CBT stoicism is about you running your life, your brain, rather than your life and brain running you. It’s about taking charge of anxiety, being mindful, consciously looking at life as half-full rather than half-empty, about perspective, learning, gratefulness.

Ultimately, it’s all about living a life with integrity.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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