How Ancient Philosophy could help us manage stress

National Stress Awareness month is just around the corner. Each year since 1992, in April health care experts across the country aim to increase public awareness of stress, its causes, and its cures.

April also brings with it another annual event that goes unnoticed by the majority of the population; the birthday of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is on April 26th.  Aurelius was born in AD121, but he is more relevant to us now than he ever was, especially with regard to the understanding and management of stress.

Marcus Aurelius was no ordinary emperor. Today, we regard Aurelius as one of the most forward thinking and insightful philosophers in history. This is chiefly due to his hugely significant and influential text called Mediations, written between 170-180 A.D. What is special about this text? It eloquently and powerfully expresses some of the main tenets of Stoicism, an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded in the 3rd century B.C. One individual who significantly influenced this emperor’s thinking and writing was Epictetus, who lived between 55-135 A.D.

On the 1st of April, I give a public talk at Staffordshire University on how we can take what Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus believed and said, and apply it to the modern performance environments we work in. Here in this short piece, I briefly introduce you to Epictetus, and detail some of the things I will be talking about.

 

Stoicism

There are many remarkable things we could say about Epictetus as a person. For example, he was born into slavery (his name means “acquired”), he earned his freedom, was banished from Rome, and set up a philosophical school in Greece. Apart from who he was and the struggles and triumphs he experienced, he is relevant to us today because of what he had to say about human emotion. This ancient philosopher and the Stoic philosophy he espoused has influenced countless stress management strategies, because it informed various contemporary cognitive behavioural therapies (CBTs). Far from being out of date, Stoicism is more relevant today than it ever has been.

As a sport and exercise psychologist, I use principles of Stoicism in my work with athletes, coaches, business leaders, and occupational workers a lot. Why? Because it promotes reason and logic, encourages emotional responsibility, and helps people cope in this unpredictable and ever-changing world we inhabit. I often take two main Stoic principles to help people manage stress:

  1. We cannot control external events.
  2. We are responsible for how we feel and behave.

 

We cannot control external events.

We hear it so often. “Control the controllables.” This idea suggests that we should invest time and effort into aspects of our lives that we have control over, rather than those aspects that we do not have control over. However, it is not so much about whether and to what extent you have controlled every possible controllable, but more about the extent to which you are able to focus on those aspects that are under your control. An example from sport might be helpful here. A footballer sitting in the changing rooms waiting to go out for the start of the match could be focusing on a range of controllable and uncontrollable things. Common uncontrollables are the crowd, the venue, the opposition, the referee, the pitch surface, judgement and support of friends, family, and of course, the result! Mixed in with that are controllables such as mental preparation, thoughts about executing skills, demonstrating ability, sticking to the game plan. In this moment, directly before performance, it is more useful to focus on the controllables. Why? Because we cannot control external events, so why waste time focusing on them in this moment? We can sometimes influence external things. But can rarely control them. As Epictetus said, “We have no power over external things”.

 

We are responsible for how we feel and behave.

How often do we hear people say things like, “it makes me so upset”, “it made me so angry”, or “its making me really nervous.” This language suggests that situations and events directly cause how we feel. This is rarely true. More often, it is what we say to ourselves about situations and events that causes our emotions. Things can’t “make” you feel emotions by themselves, its how you perceive and evaluate things that is important. This idea has become almost cliché in psychotherapeutic circles these days, and has been accepted (and debated) in psychology since the 1950s. But we don’t apply this logic nearly enough as we could and should. Epictetus said that, “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”. In sport psychology, the idea that it is our view of events that drives our emotions is being used increasingly with athletes, and is best communicated using an ABC framework:

A = the “Adversity” or the situation,

B = the “Beliefs” we have about A.

C = our emotional “Consequences” of A and B together.

So for the football player in the previous example, A could be “a huge semi-final match”, C could be his or her emotions such as extreme anxiety which could lead to avoiding ball touches (hiding) and feelings of nausea, and B could be “because this match is so important, I must perform well, and it would be terrible to perform poorly”. It is easy to see how this strong belief (B) might add additional and unnecessary pressure to the player. But it’s not the big match alone that is making the player feel extremely anxious, it’s the belief about potentially under-performing that is causing the issues.

So what can be done? Epictetus said, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” So how can we make the best of what is in our power?

 

Emotions in check

We can take control of, and choose, our beliefs, so that no matter what adversity we face, we can keep our emotions in check. Of course the footballer will be nervous, this is completely normal, but just how nervous they become will be dictated by what they say to themselves about the match, and about success and failure in general. We can control what we say to ourselves about important situations, in order to create emotions that can serve us rather than work against us.

Research conducted at Staffordshire University is showing how Stoic principles can be used with athletes to help them to deal with the pressure of performance. In a recent study, we found that when golfers approached putting under pressure Stoically, with rational and flexible thoughts, they performed much better than when they approached putting with very extreme and rigid thoughts. Research also shows that when a half-time team-talk focusses on rational language, football players are more likely to express themselves in the second half. We also know that we can help football players to think more rationally about performance from a young age, which might also help their mental well-being.

 

Final Thoughts

So, a Roman Emperor and an ancient Greek philosopher who died almost 2000 years ago could have a very real impact on how we manage stress today. As National Stress Awareness month approaches, maybe its time we looked back at what these ancient thinkers and teachers said about emotion management, and learn from the thousands of years of wisdom that supports the idea that we can control how we think and feel. “Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” – Epictetus.

Dr. Martin Turner

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