Words on a wood board that's outside near a tree saying "Patience, Practice, Perseverance"

Harnessing the Power of Stoicism to Foster Resilience in Difficult Times

By Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP, coauthor of The Stoicism Workbook

Where do resilience trainers draw from when designing their curriculums? When there is chaos and corrosiveness around you, how do you minimize the impact it has on you? The answer is Stoicism, a philosophy dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. Rome at the time of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius had much in common with the current world that we live in. There was political unrest, wars, plagues, and a lot of uncertainty. The goals of Stoicism as a philosophy are to learn to focus on controlling what you can and letting go of what you can’t, all in the service of living a good life guided by your values. The core guiding values for a practicing Stoic are wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control. Of course, to the Stoics, justice didn’t mean criminal justice, but rather having a kindness and fairness for yourself and others.

While the word stoic currently brings to mind the idea of someone who suppresses their emotions, this is actually not what the philosophy of Stoicism teaches. Suppressing your emotions is associated with decreased resilience (and increased susceptibility to mental health challenges). A true Stoic (with a capital ‘S’) is someone who feels their feelings but is not driven by them. The Stoics believed that our judgments created unnecessary distress and, in some cases, emotional reactions, and they advocated learning to be nonjudgmental. This stance became the foundation for what would later be called cognitive therapy and rational emotive therapy.

Stoics use a resilience strategy called Premeditatio Malorum, which is almost identical to the modern strategy of stress inoculation training. This practice is a twist on what people might naturally do. The literal meaning of this practice is to premeditate on what could go wrong, but this is not meant to be a pessimistic practice. In fact, it is a very positive practice because it is focused on resilient imagery. One does not imagine what could go wrong and ruminate and catastrophize about how unbearable it would be, instead they envision themselves handling these challenges well. This way, when life happens we are not caught off guard, and we know we can handle anything life throws at us. Thus, Stoicism is all about moving from ‘what if’ to ‘so what.’

Interestingly, Stoicism is more compatible with the third wave of cognitive behavioral therapies given its focus on accepting what you can’t change and taking action in the direction of your values. The Stoics emphasized living in agreement with nature, which included having an acceptance for natural processes. As the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes said, “Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling.” Stoics operate on the principle of radical acceptance and defined living a good life as one where someone is living in accordance with their values. In this way, they were less interested in hedonism and chasing short-term dopamine but instead preferred to focus on creating a fulfilling life—flourishing.

In our book, The Stoicism Workbook, we focus on an integration of ancient Stoicism and cutting-edge modern integrative cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Principles are taught using interesting historical examples, and then applied in a variety of practical exercises and worksheets. The workbook can be used as a standalone resource or incorporated into any approach that involves helping people create the type of life they want to live.

Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP, is a practicing Stoic, and international cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) trainer. He was a Global Ambassador for the World Confederation of Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies. He is a board member of the International Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (IACBT), and president-elect of the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies (A-CBT). He is coauthor of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors. He lives in San Antonio, TX.

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