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STOICISM: Ancient Wisdom


Ancient Wisdom For Troubled Times

When people think of the Stoics, they often mistakenly think of the adjective stoic - with a small 's' - to describe someone without emotion or who endures adversity without complaint.


Stoicism with a big 'S,' however, is an ancient but highly practical guide for living that helps us to manage the impact that negative emotions can have in our lives. It is also currently experiencing a popular resurgence.

Founded in a time of disease, war, and uncertainty, Stoicism is a philosophy of life that seeks to maximize positive emotions, while minimising negative ones. It was designed to help people live their best lives, especially during times of adversity and


It is based on the principle that while we can't control what happens to us, we can control how we feel about it. While we are not in control of what others do to us, we are in control of how we respond to them.

According to the Stoics, adversity isn't just a regrettable inconvenience, but instead an opportunity to test our courage, strengths, and problem-solving skills in the pursuit of acceptance and personal growth.

For the Stoics, thinking clearly during troubled times is a meaningful form of happiness in itself. Taking responsibility for how we feel is up to us, and doesn't depend on external factors or on others.


The Stoics believed that our everyday struggles and concerns fall into one of two categories. There are things within our circle of control and things outside our circle of control.

When we value or focus on things that are outside of our control, we are more likely to experience frustration, resentment, and anger when things don't go our way.

By contrast, when we focus on things that are within our control, we retain the power to exercise free will, and find satisfaction in the ability to act wisely, even when things are going against us.

The things within our control, according to the Stoics, are our thoughts and our actions. Sound familiar?

Therefore, it isn't stress, or adversity, or setbacks themselves that cause us pain. Instead, it is our beliefs about what these adversities mean that creates negative emotions and distress. As such, it is our thoughts that create our feelings.

For the Stoics, applying practical thinking tools just as we are about to get upset is at the core of resilience and emotional wellbeing.


Stoic philosophers used a number of strategies to facilitate a shift in one's perspective when confronted by adversity.

Firstly, we can use what the Stoics call the 'challenge mindset' to view problems as challenges to overcome, instead of undeserved injustices.

While we have learnt that reframing stressful situations as challenges can help us reduce their physical and emotional impact, the Stoics went a step further by inviting us to think of small adversities as welcome challenges that allow us to test our character, persistence and resourcefulness.

Secondly, the Stoics cultivated a practice at the start of each day called 'negative visualization.' Instead of positive thinking and manifesting things going right, which often leads to disappointment, Stoics would briefly and deliberately consider worst-case scenarios and all the things that could go wrong in the day ahead.

For example, they would pre-meditate how they would respond calmly to getting stuck in traffic, or being let down by someone they were relying on.

Finally, we can learn to take a less catastrophic, and more realistic approach to the

problems that pop up in our lives. For this, we can use the 'catastrophe scale.'

To use the scale practically, we compare one problem at hand with other real or potential problems that we, or others, might be facing. This will put our challenge into perspective and help us realise that we may have overreacted or have made ourselves unnecessarily upset.



Reflect: While one might think of it as gloomy, we can practice negative visualization as a form of gratitude. Think of something you currently take for granted, such as your ability to walk or to hug your spouse, and then imagine losing it. Take this as an opportunity for gratitude when you realize that the worst case scenario isn't true!

Plan: Put a time block in your diary to rediscover the long lost art of reading, just before bed each night or on Sunday mornings works for many people. Start with something inspirational and uplifting or search online for a primary or secondary text about Stoicism to discover more.

Act: Ask yourself: "Is this something within my control" when you become overwhelmed or anxious. If the situation is ultimately out of your control, such as whether someone likes you or whether climate change will get worse, ask yourself what small step you can take right now that is within your control.

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