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Stoicism revisited: how ancient wisdom can help you navigate uncertain times.

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What do you when you are faced with uncertainty, fear, or stress?  How do you cope with obstacles?  Stoic philosophy could provide you with very useful tools to navigate life’s challenges.

This past summer fires burned over 390,000 acres of land in Washington, Oregon, and California creating hazardous air quality conditions and killing people. Recent catastrophic disruption caused by a series of unusually intense hurricanes this fall from Harvey, Irma, and Maria have uprooted people and destroyed homes and communities. Mexico’s earthquake took a devastating toll killing several hundred citizens and demolishing Mexico City.  And now Las Vegas.  Heart-wrenching, disturbing, and emotionally shocking. How do you cope with all of this devastation?

Frustration, fear, worry, exasperation, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, hopelessness, shock, anger, disbelief, confusion, distrust, and vulnerability are the myriad of feelings that surface when you experience trauma. A recent survey concludes that more Americans suffer from serious psychological distress than ever before.   If your negative emotions are easily taking hold of your psyche and hijacking your ability to function and move forward productively, then this could be a serious red flag that your well-being is at stake.

So, what do you do?

Seeking appropriate medical help is paramount to successfully navigate inner mental turmoil and emotional disturbances generated from trauma.  There exist many effective therapeutic models and seasoned professionals that can offer you strategies to overcome challenging setbacks.

But everyday life can take its toll too, not just major traumatic disasters.  Work or home conflicts, health issues, financial worries, or even smaller setbacks such as having your computer on the fritz, no telephone bars on your phone, or having your internet service down can send you into a frenzy.   When emotional distraught festers, it can cause a lack of focus, lead to poor decision making, increase stress, and erode your health.

Recently there has been a resurgence and interest in Stoicism, as witnessed by top-selling books such as: The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (Teach Yourself: Philosophy & Religion)

When you hear the word “stoic,” most think of emotionless people that have no heart or soul. But this isn’t true.  The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was founded in Greece by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century.  Famous Stoics include Socrates, the Greek philosopher;  Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor; and Seneca, a philosopher and statesman.  Stoicism influenced Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, a main branch of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, who frequently referenced the famous Epictetus quote:

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”

How might Stoicism guide you to better conquer everyday life hurdles, improve your quality of life, and help you achieve greater happiness and well-being?


3 Stoic Disciplines to help you with emotional distress:


1.  The Discipline of Self Control.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

According to Stoics, daily life requires you to enter a battlefield where you must practice self-control to fight your impulses that seduce you into wanting more and distort your perceptions of the events and circumstances that surround you.

Moderation is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. Hedonism and self-indulgence lead you down a path of false pursuits. If you detach yourself from materialism and other desires, you can free yourself from emotional triggers.  Shift your mindset to one that accepts and appreciates what you already have and find the good in the present moment.

Fundamental to Stoic philosophy is not only to divest yourself of excess but also to rationally control your thoughts by using reason.  While feelings cannot be avoided, you can learn how to distance yourself from your emotional chaos by applying rational thinking to your situation.  Understanding what you can and cannot control is paramount to living a satisfying and happy life. Your false perceptions and misinterpretation of various situations are what leads to an unhappy state of mind. Obstacles will occur in your life, however, it is how you interpret these events and your ability to let go of or to accept all that is outside of your control is what leads to greater daily happiness and well-being.

Think of self-control not as a restraint but as a practice of managing your mind to help you experience greater fulfillment in your own life.

Guiding questions:

  • What specifically do you have control over in any given situation?
  • What can you let go of because it is outside of your control?
  • How can you demonstrate and practice moderation your life?
  • How can you develop greater resilience?
  • What can you do to improve your self-control and fortitude?
  • How have you used reason to respond to your situation?
  • How are you responding to your life in the present moment?
  • What ways can you begin to accept the things that you cannot change?

2.  The Discipline of Virtuous Action.

“If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, do not say it.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Based on Stoic philosophy the path to happiness is to live a virtuous life or to at least strive to practice wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance (living with restraint).  The goal is to live your life with the highest moral integrity.  Your moral worth is not reflected in the amount of wealth you have attained, your vibrant health, your intelligence, or your material possessions.  It is reflected in how you are contributing to the greater good and how you are demonstrating virtue.  

Remember that a key component of Stoicism is understanding what is within your control and what is outside it. Your natural intelligence is a trait that Stoics believe is outside your ability to influence or change.  However, you do have complete control over your actions in how you demonstrate honesty, dignity, happiness, kindness, and persistence. Your actions will show your true character and nature. So act with the highest moral integrity and seek out a virtuous life.  These pursuits will lead you to flourish and experience greater fulfillment.

Guiding questions:

  • What good deeds have you done today?
  • How are you cultivating your moral character?
  • What habit are you hoping to improve and how have you been working on it today?
  • How are you being a force of good in the world?
  • What choices have you made that support your highest values?
  • How have you acted with humility?
  • What steps are you taking to learn how to develop high morality integrity?

3.  The Discipline of Harmonious Living

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Stoics believe in living in harmony with yourself, with others, and with your natural world.  In order to live in harmony with yourself, you need to know who you are. Self-knowledge and the awareness of your own beliefs and principles are the scaffolding to which you can build your moral and virtuous life.  When you act congruently with your principles and match your needs and wants to what life has offered you, you will experience inner peace.

Stoicism emphasizes harmony with humankind; with both good and evil people. According to Marcus Aurelius, all of humankind comes from the same source; the same “portion of the divinity.” However, there are people who behave in arrogant and selfish ways requiring you to act with greater patience, forgiveness, and understanding.  And while it’s important to exhibit compassion, Stoicism encourages you to cultivate fortitude and detachment so that you are not dismantled by others. This will help you maintain and develop resilience.

Finally, Stoicism invites you to live in harmony with your natural world; to understand that it grows, changes and has a life of its own outside of your control. When you connect to the larger cosmos you begin to see how small and fleeting your life really is.  A bird’s-eye view from the sky above can expand your perspective and make certain problems seem trivial and small-minded.  You will notice how interconnected the web of the universe really is.

Guiding questions:

  • Are you living in harmony with yourself and your values?
  • What can you do to increase harmony within yourself?
  • Have you practiced patience and forgiveness with those who are also on the same journey?
  • Are you forgiving of your own faults and have you practiced self-acceptance?
  • What do you notice and how do you feel when you walk in nature?
  • When you zoom out and take a bird’s eye view, what do you observe?
  • What can you do to live in greater flow with your life so that you are not fighting it?
  • How can you be in the present moment?


Suggested Reading:

The Daily Stoic: 365 Meditations on wisdom, perseverance and the art of Living.




How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life




Stoicism and the Art of Happiness ( Teach Yourself: Philosophy & Religion)



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