If you've ever suffered from anxiety or panic attacks you know that the experience, even when short in duration, can be distressing, debilitating and downright terrifying. It doesn't take long for these types of stressors to bleed into all aspects of our lives, putting a veil of darkness over each and every moment and interaction we have. Fortunately, there may be some relief to be found in an ancient philosophy that originated in Greece and Rome around the year 300 BC - Stoicism.
Stoic teachings encourage a particular way of thinking that people with mental health conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks, and depression have reported to find extremely effective at creating a deep sense of inner-calm and self-control, even in the face of intense hardships.
With that in mind, let's look at five Stoic teachings for living a calmer, happier life.
1. Obsessively evaluate what is and isn't within your control.
If there is one idea Stoicism is most well known for, and the one it values most, it's the acceptance of things we cannot control. In fact, ancient Stoics bordered on the obsessive when it came to the repetition of this philosophy in their writings. Over and over again, seemingly in an infinite different number of ways, came the message:
Epictetus: People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.
Marcus Aurelius: Don't desire what you have no control over.
Seneca: It is not due to things that we suffer, but to our thoughts about the things.
Epictetus: If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Seneca: Fate leads the willing, and drags along the unwilling.
Marcus Aurelius: All external things are naturally attached to you only; they come to you and belong to you alone. It is only your thoughts about these things that have to be separated.
When consuming Stoic literature, it's clear that ridding our mind of anxiousness or concern about things we can not control is the basis for everything else that flows from its philosophy. These "uncontrollables" include: our health (which we can influence somewhat but never control), reputation (which we can similarly influence but not control), and random events out in the world around us such as a negative interaction with a stranger, or the death of a loved one.
Stoic teachings encourage us to focus our energy on the only two things we can control: our thoughts and actions. As the Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius reiterates in Meditations with near compulsion: "The happiness and misery of your life depend upon the quality of your thoughts: for the soul is modified by the images presented to it."
2. Practice negative visualization.
Perhaps a surprising teaching to follow one about not worrying about what we can control, but it's important to differentiate between Stoicism and philosophies centered on unyielding positive thought that have risen in popularity over the past two decades thanks to works like The Secret and The Power Of Now. Because while both are great works with valuable teaching, Stoicism believes in experiencing life in all its glory, pain and pleasure alike, and is focused simply on the acceptance of whatever may come. In fact, Stoic philosophy champions reflecting on negative outcomes in our lives as well, be it the loss of our belongings, our loved ones, or even our own lives.
Although the idea of picturing the worst case scenario may seem anxiety provoking to some, perhaps even masochistic, the Stoics believed that by taking the time to practice negative visualization, we strengthen ourselves against future challenges and prepare our minds for the battles we will all have to face.
3. Accept life as it is, not as you wish it to be.
Building on the teaching above, Epictetus once compared two individuals: one who imagines that all of his wishes will come true and another who believes only a few of his desires will be fulfilled. He referred to the first as a spoiled child and the other as an adult - perhaps not the most creative analogy but one that effectively illustrates the relationship between desire and contentment.
Although having wishes and desires is a normal part of the human experience, it should never be mistaken for expectations. According to the Stoics, excessive focus on the outcome of events can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction when things don't go as planned. By learning to accept life as it is, we allow ourselves to experience its beauty more fully, while freeing ourselves from the emotional baggage of resentment and regret.
4. Be a good member of society.
"I am a single limb of a larger body - a rational one." -Marcus Aurelius
Although Stoicism is a philosophy focused primarily on personal improvement and self-empowerment, Stoic teachings constantly remind us to consider how we can improve the lives of those around us through our kindness and generosity. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about our responsibility to the whole: "We are not born for ourselves alone."
By stepping outside our own goals and desires, and practicing kindness towards others, we achieve the dual benefit of not just bringing joy to the lives of those around us, but instilling a sense of calm and purpose in our own lives.
As modern-day philosopher Gary Vee says: "karma is practical."
5. Above all else, be consistent.
Before there were inspirational quotes, there was Marcus Aurelius, who wrote the following in Meditations: "Dig deep; the water - goodness - is down there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up."
Central to this teaching is the idea that nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes. In other words, the only way to achieve happiness and live a peaceful, content life is to commit ourselves fully and completely. Of course we can't always control the events that happen around us, but we can choose how we respond to those events, and do so with unwavering discipline through practice, consistency, and focus.
By practicing these five simple lessons every day of our lives, by continuing to dig, we can achieve not only a happier, less anxious existence but one that is more passionate and fulfilling. In this way, we can overcome the obstacles presented by life with a sense of calmness, rationality, and reason - traits that have been revered since the time of the Stoics, but are more important today than ever before.