An Ancient Philosophical Guide to Side-Stepping Stress and Staying Calm

Jon Hawkins

When faced with extreme adversity, adopt these age-old teachings.

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The world is is in chaos and disarray right now, with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic underpinning major threats to humanity:

Alongside that, the world is falling apart. Mass forest fires and the earth’s glaciers melting at a faster rate than ever are proof we are facing a global climate crisis.

Faced with this overwhelming knowledge, it’s quite easy to let our primal fight-or-flight instincts kick in. To panic, experience existential anxiety, crawl into a ball, and wonder how life will go on.

But things are never as bad as they seem, and letting your mind spiral into a state of panic won’t improve your situation. You’d be better off staying calm and finding a state of mind that will help you rationally work to improve your situation.

Do so by adopting these age-old teachings from ancient philosophers.

Adjust Your View On Control

Our “locus of control” refers to the degree to which a person believes they, rather than external forces, have control over the outcome of their situation.

After discovering that we’re entering a national lockdown and local businesses are suffering, or learning that the earth’s glaciers are slowly melting, those with an internal locus of control might take partial responsibility and get frustrated. As time goes on and nothing changes, these people get defeated and start to blame themselves.

Rather than admitting things lie outside their control, they frantically ask themselves: When will it stop? What if things get worse? How do we change the fate of humanity? How do I improve my own situation?

That frame of thinking is dangerous. It leaves us feeling hopeless because, no matter how hard we try, we can’t single-handily stop the pandemic or global warming. It’s far beyond our means.

This is something that 2nd-century slave and philosopher, Epictetus, came to terms with. In The Art of Living, he wrote:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”

We do have control over some things, predominantly our inner mind: character, perceptions, aspirations, desires, actions, and values. But there’s also a lot we can’t control:

  • How others act, think, or perceive us.
  • What the weather is going to be like tomorrow, or when the pandemic is going to end.
  • Whether our favorite sports team is going to win.

Epictetus found peace acknowledging that, no matter what he did, the fate of these things is set in stone and won’t change.

If we can’t change the course of something, there’s no logical reason to worry about it. Our time is better spent on the things we can influence, like how we perceive and respond to the world around us. You can’t prevent the pandemic, but you can make the best of a bad situation. You can’t single-handedly prevent climate change, but you can make changes on an individual level.

We free ourselves the moment we let go of things outside our control.

In his words:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Even when we’ve acknowledged that things are outside our control, some of us stress over worst-case scenarios. For example, even though Covid-19 is beyond me, I can’t help but worry about ever-growing unemployment rates.

But things are always worse in our own heads. If you’re losing sleep playing out everything that could go wrong, you might benefit from practicing Premeditatio Malorum (also known as “negative visualization.”)

Premeditatio Malorum is a thousand-year-old Stoic exercise that encourages us to play out a certain event in our head and imagine everything that could go wrong. Doing so is beneficial for two reasons:

Firstly, preparing for the worst-case helps us build mental resilience and prepare for life's inevitable setbacks. No matter what life throws at us, we will be ready to courageously take it on knowing that — as it played out in our heads — we can manage it if we set our minds to it.

For example, even if unemployment rates skyrocket, I trust in my abilities to find work; and will always have my savings to fall back on.

Secondly, playing out events makes us realize that our anxiety and worry have exaggerated how bad things could be. We can find peace knowing the worst-case scenario is much less likely, and never as bad as we think.

As Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…”

The Benefit of Negative Thinking

Negative visualization is a scientifically proven way to prepare for the battles ahead and put your anxiety to good use.

Psychologist Julie Norem calls these types of people “defensive pessimists.” They’re using their pessimism to protect themselves: by lowering expectations and imagining worst-case scenarios.

In her study for Michigan University (1986,) she discovered that becoming a defensive pessimist significantly improves your skills in numerous tasks like throwing darts, solving mathematical problems, and even real-life problems.

Rather than being a victim of their environment, defensive pessimists are happy to take risks knowing they have a plan of action if things go south. That enables them to live a more authentic, enjoyable, and well-intentioned life; pursuing the things they truly desire, rather than trying to avoid negative events.

Just as importantly, thinking about a worst-case scenario helps boost their gratitude: after all, the thought of losing something we hold close encourages us to count our blessings and appreciate it while we can.

Trust Your Ability to Turn Bad Into Good

If things do go wrong, we should trust in our ability to make things right. It may not seem it now, but you have the power to overcome any obstacle that life throws at you.

In Epictetus’s words:

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic class material.”

He argued that the obstacles we face provide the necessary fuel to become the best version of ourselves. We really don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re called upon; you are stronger, better, and more resilient than you once thought.

Rather than fixating on the things outside your control, trust in your ability to steady the ship and put things right when needed.

Recognize That Life Moves On

Even if the worst thing imaginable were to happen, life goes on. The world isn’t going to implode and the human race isn’t going to die out in your lifetime.

Whether you’re fired from your job or lose someone you care about, you can brush yourself off and start again.

Just as importantly, failure is an opportunity for you to learn to grow. It’s a sign that you haven’t yet aligned your values with reality — but with practice, you can steady the ship and adjust your journey back on course.

Rather than worrying, relax. Remind yourself that, even if things go wrong, there will always be an opportunity to put things right.

In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius argues our ability to persist through failure is a “great good fortune.” It’s a chance to learn, reflect and improve knowing that one day you will face and overcome the challenge that once got the better of you.

In his words:

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”

You might think a Covid lockdown is the worst thing imaginable, but there will be opportunities to make up for lost time. You may think getting fired is the end of the world, but there will always be other jobs.

Life isn’t as black and white as pass or fail. Because with enough perseverance, we can all get to where we want to be; no matter how many setbacks we have.

Final Thoughts

With everything that’s going on in the world right now, it would be quite easy to focus on the negative, crawl into a ball, and let life get the better of us.

But things are never as bad as they seem. To realize that, and to calm yourself during a storm, adopt these age-old teachings:

  1. Change your locus of control. As Epictetus discovered, the majority of the things we worry about are outside our control; and there’s no logical reason to stress over something you can’t change.
  2. Play out the worst-case scenarios using the Premeditatio Malorum technique. Build mental resilience and prepare for setbacks, while also reminding yourself that things are never as bad as they seem. Doing so helps us live an authentic life, rather than avoiding risks in case something goes wrong.
  3. Recognize that, no matter how bad things get, life goes on. Even if things go wrong, there will always be a chance to put things right. That, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, is a “great good fortune.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” — Marcus Aurelius

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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