Stress-Proof Yourself: Become a Stoic in Five Steps
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts" ~ Marcus Aurelius
How well are you coping with stressful events these days? Are you feeling besieged by endless waves of frustration, anger, or despair? Would you like to find a wellspring of inner peace that you can rely on every day?
Those who are eager or desperate to become tougher and calmer in the face of adversity are now embracing Stoicism, an ancient philosophy espoused by notable Greek and Roman philosophers. With its emphasis on choosing clear calm thinking as a guide rather than messy emotions, Stoicism could be just the key you need to live better.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, classical Stoicism (with a capital “S”) does not advocate repressing emotions. It is not to be confused with a modern use stoicism (with a small “s”) which refers to keeping the proverbial stiff upper lip. In contrast, Stoic philosophy lifts up practices of mindful awareness and rational thinking as the best path through turbulent times. Some consider it the Western equivalent of Buddhism. It also resonates well with science-backed principles emerging from positive psychology.
The Benefits of Stoic Principles
The trending popularity of a Stoic lifestyle can be traced to two prolific authors, William Irvine, Ph.D. (The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient) and Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle Is the Way), among others.
Less well known, however, is that Stoic concepts entered the psychotherapy scene decades back as an effective way to treat depression and anxiety. Anyone who has experienced either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Rational Emotive Therapy will recognize the Stoic-influenced rational thinking they promote as an antidote to disabling negative emotions.
The Stoic principles offered by Irvine--distilled from such classical thinkers as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus--offer strategies that are deceptively simple and astoundingly useful. Doctoral students may find it particularly helpful as it relies on your rational faculty.
Setbacks are inevitable on life’s journey. What if you could dispense with habitual energy-sucking negative emotions and instead respond with reasoned resilience? You can conquer the needless drama from a brutal Inner Critic by fortifying your Inner Stoic. You can develop a more peaceful you while creating sustainable success.
How can you become a Stoic ABD? Experiment with Irvine’s five strategies for meeting challenges, adapted below for the curious ABD, along with handy mantras you might wish to post in your workspace.
Become a Stoic ABD in Five Steps
1. When setbacks happen, call on your Best Self.
When your IRB approval or defense date has been delayed due to revisions or committee issues, don’t crumble.
“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” ~ Seneca
The Stoic ABD accepts pain is inevitable but knows that suffering is optional and self-created. In painful moments, ask yourself, “What would my Best Self do in this situation?” Identify relevant inner strengths, e.g., curiosity, perseverance, love of learning, kindness, etc., that you could leverage. For more ideas, take the free VIA Strengths Survey here and post your list of top strengths where you will see it when beset by struggles.
Role models also provide inspiration. Consider the case of the 102-year-old Holocaust survivor who was awarded her doctorate 77 years after Nazis blocked her final defense. What’s holding you back? If she can persist, so can you! Allow yourself to find hope in stories of ordinary people who overcame great obstacles, even outside your field. My personal go-to is the poet Maya Angelou, whose wisdom always energizes me!
MANTRA: “I WILL DO THE BEST I CAN WITH WHAT I HAVE WHERE I AM.”
2. Cultivate anti-fragility.
“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” ~Epicurus
How would you react if a pandemic or a computer glitch threw a monkey wrench in your well-laid plans?
“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire,” asserts Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.
While fragile things break under stress and others merely resist it, antifragile entities actually grow or gain from unwelcome stimuli. Practicing Stoicism will allow you to blaze when the wind picks up! As Seneca wrote, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
The truth is you must leave your comfort zone to grow. Leaning into rather than away from challenge builds resilience. You wouldn’t expect to build your physical resilience by lifting Styrofoam weights, would you?
I’ll never forget my first client, whose dissertation committee told her to give up and go home to raise her child. Supported by coaching, she chose to adopt a growth mindset and resubmitted her dissertation, earning high praise and her doctoral degree. Afterward, she leveraged her newfound resilience to choose a risky non-academic path—and she has rocked it!
MANTRA: CHALLENGES STRENGTHEN ME!
3. Gamify It: The Stoic Test
The dissertation path is littered with impediments and distractions. You struggle with your advisor. Writer’s block grips you. Your computer gives up its ghost. The data gets unruly. Your committee insists on a new chapter. Or maybe your family, job, or health suddenly eats up your time and attention. Anything can go wrong, and you should expect they will. Probably at very inconvenient moments.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” ~Viktor Frankl
When barriers pop up, Irvine invites you to imagine that the fictitious Stoic gods are testing you. They will evaluate your response on two dimensions, the solution itself and your equanimity—with the latter weighted more heavily.
Bottom line: You will inevitably get triggered, at which time your top goal is to see how quickly you can reset your emotions.
When you shift from your threat lens to a challenge lens, you can raise your level of game. Positivity will widen your perspective and build your resources, research shows. It is the surest, healthiest way through the storm.
In The Stoic Challenge, Irvine recounts a lengthy cascade of mishaps while traveling. While a non-Stoic might unravel, he instead thanked the gods for the opportunity to practice. Being able to laugh at the gods can keep you on an even keel, able to cope with each successive misfortune, he has found.
When I hit a roadblock, I find it helps to imagine that this is a video game, and to level up I have to navigate it with a clear head. Meanwhile, one of my more artistic clients created an actual map of her dissertation safari through deserts and jungles, relishing the chance to develop her mettle. What game metaphor describes your experience at work or school?
MANTRA: GAME ON!
4. Shift to gratitude through a negative visualization.
“The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for,” wrote an anonymous sage.
Visualize for a moment that everything and everyone that matters to you are suddenly taken away. How would you feel? Let that sink in for a moment. . . and then take a fresh look at how blessed you actually are. This is not to discount the psychological effect of real traumas and tragedies you may have experienced.
Stoics taught that humans take too much for granted—even how much time we have. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote in Meditations, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
The Stoic motto “memento mori” [“Remember death”] does not call for morbid rumination but rather prompts us to live fully now with the awareness that we all will die one day. “It’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them,” explains Sister Aletheia, a Catholica nun who has inspired an entire movement around memento mori.
You think things are bad? They could be worse, a Stoic will assert. As Irvine puts it, “You are leading someone else’s dream life.” When pessimism creeps in my thoughts, my inner Stoic reminds me to contemplate the plight of thousands of war refugees on beaches or in camps. Then I remember my blessings: comfortable circumstances, physical and mental health, loving family and friends, and more. The resulting deep gratitude spurs me to take advantage of my good fortune and to be generous to those in need.
Countless others would gladly trade places with you. Allow that awareness to create a gratitude shift that energizes you. “Not many get an opportunity to earn a doctorate,” reflected one of my clients who had been mired in dissertation limbo for years. With that insight he overcame his writer’s block and finished in weeks.
MANTRA: “NOT EVERYONE GETS THIS OPPORTUNITY.”
5. Cultivate your “Best Self,” not your “Lazy Self.”
In addition to our “Best Self,” a “Lazy Self” lurks within each of us. Your Best Self will finish important projects on time. Your Lazy Self will try to con you into procrasti-baking, procrasti-napping, procrasti-tweeting, etc.
“When you arise in the morning, think what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to think, to love ~ Marcus Aurelius
Despite procrastination’s ultimate consequences, your Lazy Self nonetheless wins some rounds because humans are wired to take the path of least resistance. “Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit is really the ripest,” concluded researcher Nobuhiro Hagura.
What’s wrong with that? Neuroscience now makes it clear: Whatever behavior you practice most will become your default behavior. You are creating the behavioral algorithm that determines what you are likely to do tomorrow just the way your social media clicks determine what shows up in your digital feed.
You are creating Future You with every choice.
“Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you wish to become.” ~ James Clear