Manage the Stress of COVID-19 with Stoicism

Psychological tools from the ancient Stoics can help you endure the pandemic.

Posted Jan 05, 2021

You’re about to sit down for your sixth virtual meeting of the day when your toddler strolls into your makeshift home office. As you call to your partner for help, your son spills his juice all over your laptop. You hastily clean up the mess, sighing at the screen’s image of your wildly disordered hair. Soldiering on, you force a smile and begin the meeting, only to find that your connection suddenly dropped. As you frantically try to reconnect, your phone sends an ominous alert: the last time you went to the store in a vain attempt to buy toilet paper, you were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

It is nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this writing, more than 1.9 million people around the world have succumbed to the infection so far, and many more have been hospitalized. This magnitude of suffering and death from an infectious agent hasn’t been seen since 1918 when the H1N1 influenza virus ravaged the world.

In order to preserve life, we’ve had to upend our way of life. An effective strategy to curtail transmission of the virus is social distancing, but this tactic has disrupted work, school, and gatherings with family and friends. The threat of serious illness, the loss of job security, and the challenging adjustments to our normal routine have generated extraordinarily high levels of stress. To rub salt in the wound, COVID-19 has deprived us of the usual ways we blow off steam, such as working out at the gym, taking in a movie at the theatre, or commiserating with friends at a brewpub.

The difficulties that COVID-19 has created in our lives has prompted many to seek counseling, which has taxed mental health services. While licensed clinicians are critical resources for managing mental health, there are useful psychological strategies people can employ that may help quell daily experiences of pandemic-related anxiety. I have adopted principles from Stoicism, a philosophical system that has its roots in ancient Greece. Using rationality to understand human nature, the Stoics devised numerous brain hacks that can be used to cope with stress, misfortune, and grief. The Stoics recognized that a tranquil life is a happy life, and it can be obtained for all through the cultivation of reason, virtue, and self-control.

The Stoics realized that we do not have complete control over our lives. Life often throws curve balls like COVID-19, which has taken us into foreign terrain filled with uncertainty and trepidation. Since external circumstances can ruin expectations, Stoics argue that it is better to internalize goals. This is to say that it is a waste of time and energy to worry about the things beyond our control; rather, we should focus our attention on the items we have the power to influence. For example, you cannot control whether infection with COVID-19 will be mild or fatal, but you can take steps to minimize acquiring the infection in the first place by following the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Stoics also considered our duty to humanity to supersede the duty to oneself. Living with a contagion on the loose provides an ideal opportunity to be virtuous by foregoing selfish desires for the benefit of the community. Many people would love to throw a party, eat at a restaurant, or go shopping without wearing a mask. By making these kinds of sacrifices, you are stopping the virus in its tracks, reducing suffering, and undoubtedly saving lives. To paraphrase Marcus Tullius Cicero: Knowing that you are living virtuously carries its own reward.

The most difficult part of the pandemic, of course, is dealing with the grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one. The Stoics would have reminded us about the impermanence of life and encouraged us to contemplate the inevitable reality of death in advance. That way, if COVID-19 does claim the life of your loved one, you are better prepared. And if your loved one survives the infection, you will be joyful and less inclined to take that person for granted in the future. You cannot control when tragedy will strike, but you can control your attitude towards it. As Epictetus said, “We suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgment about them.”

Another useful tool in the Stoic’s toolkit is negative visualization, which involves picturing worse things that could happen. If you are lonely, imagine what life would be like without virtual communication. Imagine if COVID-19 disrupted infrastructure such that goods and services could no longer be delivered. If you are tired of working from home, be grateful that you still have a job and that this arrangement is temporary. Instead of complaining that you can’t go to a concert, bar, or sporting event, be thankful that you do not have to go to the hospital. If you are upset that COVID-19 exists, take solace in the fact that talented scientists have developed vaccines. Even if you lose a loved one, the Stoics would encourage you to be appreciative of the precious time you were able to share together. No matter what happens to you, there is almost always something worse that could have transpired. Envisioning more negative scenarios allows you to better appreciate the good fortune you do have.

In addition, the Stoics would advocate that we “other-ize” our circumstances. This is a handy trick that entails stepping outside of yourself to examine your lot in life with greater objectivity. When you feel that you are the victim of an upsetting situation, pause and take a deep breath. Then talk to yourself as if you were talking to a friend who was the victim. When we speak to a friend about a grievance, we usually remind them to calm down and help them see that things aren’t so bad. Sometimes we help them see the silver lining. We should counsel ourselves like we would counsel a friend.

Importantly, the Stoics realized that we need very little in life to be happy. Indeed, lusting after money or fame is misguided. There is always more money and fame to pursue, and our insatiable nature will prevent us from enjoying what we already have. Some studies have validated that over time, increased income does not lead to greater satisfaction with life. A more assured way to happiness and well-being is through obtaining virtue by living a life of value. Numerous studies have shown that a strong correlation exists between happiness, health, and longevity of people who help others. With COVID-19 surging, there are many ways to make a positive impact, from donating to food banks and charities to volunteering as a crisis counselor. The sudden appearance of a pandemic is a chilling reminder that life is fragile and fleeting, and Stoicism challenges us to use the time we are gifted wisely. As Seneca declared, “You are scared of dying–and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different than being dead?”

In whole or in part, Stoicism may not provide the best coping skills for you. We are all unique and respond to difficult situations in various ways. Developing a philosophy of life that suits you is a critical step in ameliorating stress and finding tranquility.