10 Healthy Ways to Get Through Difficult Times
Insights from Stoic philosophy.
Posted Sep 07, 2020
To build emotional resilience and to reduce the risk of developing serious emotional problems in the future requires learning how to face everyday problems, such as worry, loss, and self-control. The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoic focuses on cultivating virtue and strength of character to handle obstacles in life. The fruits of Stoic philosophy are tranquility, courage, and freedom. The followings provide examples of Stoic strategies that often resemble modern cognitive behavior therapy (Pigliucci, 2017; Robertson, 2019).
1. Value clarification. Clarifying our core values and trying to live consistently with them can help us gain a greater sense of direction and meaning in life. To live a full meaningful life and flourish is to discover our unique and authentic calling. As Nietzsche remarked, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
2. Nothing is entirely under our control, except our own voluntary actions and thoughts. The foundation of Stoic philosophy begins by focusing our attention and efforts on those things that we can control, and ignoring those that we cannot. Knowing that we have done our best given the circumstances leads to the calm acceptance of whatever happens. Stoic acceptance is similar to Nietzsche’s idea of Amor Fati (love one’s fate). This means to accept life in its entirety.
3. Attitude. As the Stoics like to put it, “It is not things that upset us but our judgment about them.” Our emotional lives are shaped by our values and judgments. We can liberate ourselves from negative emotions such as anger and hatred by developing a capacity to choose how to interpret the situation.
4. Pause and take a deep breath. Strong feelings make us forget that there are different ways of viewing a situation. For example, anger is nothing but temporary madness with potentially lasting consequences. The mere passage of time can lower the intensity of emotion. By delaying we won’t fall prey to basing decisions entirely on what happens to be in our mind in the immediate moment.
5. Cognitive distancing. Cognitive distancing refers to the ability to separate our value judgments from facts. Describing events in objective form is the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy. For example, when someone becomes ill, we should avoid adding value judgment like: “Why me? This is awful.” Viewing events objectively helps us prevent from being overwhelmed by our emotions.
6. Blowing things out of proportion. When we are anxious, we tend to overestimate both the likelihood and the intensity of threat and danger. When people are really struggling, they focus on their inability to cope and the feeling that the problem is spiraling out of control. A good idea for achieving peace of mind is to learn to downgrade the perceived severity of a threat from, “What if this happens?” To, “How will I cope.” To, “So what if this happens?” “It’s not the end of the world.” Separating our value judgments from the facts can often reduce our anxiety.
7. Negative visualization. The stoic philosophers recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value. Doing so will make us value what we already have. Rather than desiring things that are absent (the ‘grass is always greener’ mentality), we should practice gratitude for the things we already have in life.
8. Managing unhealthy desires. The key to breaking a bad habit (e.g., overeating) is to spot them early so that you can nip them. As the 16th-century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne remarked, “The infancies of all things are feeble and weak. We must keep our eyes open at their beginnings; you cannot find the danger then because it is so small; once it has grown, you cannot find the cure.” This requires persistent self-monitoring, especially looking out for any distorted thoughts that might excuse the desire (e.g., I have not had a drink for a while; this is going to be my last treat, and then I’ll start my diet).
9. Resilience building. Nietzsche famously remarked, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ We can view any experience of emotional pain as an opportunity that will strengthen our ability to better deal with any future pain. Seneca remarked, “No man knows his own strength or value but by being put to the proof.”
10. Letting go of excessive attachment to external things. Attachment implies a holding on, or wanting things to be a certain way. Clinging to things, especially to a sense of self, is what creates suffering. Stoics were famous for cultivating indifference toward external things and disregarding praise and criticism from others. As indicated in the ancient book, The Way of Life by Lao-Tze: “If you never assume importance, You never lose it.”
Pigliucci, Massimo (2017), How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. NY: Baic Books.
Robertson, Donald (2019), How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, St. Martin's Press.