Stoicism and Being AWARE of Anxiety

Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Acceptance

Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm… — Epictetus, Fragment

In recent decades, there’s been a revolution in the way cognitive-behavioural psychotherapists treat emotional disorders. A “third wave” of evidence-based therapies evolved that focus more on mindfulness of thoughts and acceptance of unpleasant feelings, rather than disputing our beliefs in order to change our emotions. This sea change emerged from a growing body of research, which converged on the finding that people with severe anxiety and depression already tend to be trying too hard to think their way out of their problems and struggling too much to control their feelings.

The Stoic philosophy, which originally inspired cognitive therapy, had also endorsed a similar acceptance of unpleasant emotions, although this is often forgotten today.

However, acceptance of uncomfortable emotions had already long been taught by many earlier forms of psychotherapy, e.g., the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls and others, which developed in the 1950s. Indeed, even the original forms of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy had, sometimes, taught emotional acceptance. In his recently-revised manual for the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders, Aaron T. Beck, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy, clearly states that his objective is not to teach people how to “control their anxiety”.

Instead cognitive therapy focuses on helping individuals develop a more “accepting attitude” toward anxiety rather than a “combative (i.e., controlling) attitude.” When thoughts like “I can’t let these anxious feelings continue” are replaced with “I can allow myself to feel anxious because I know I’m exaggerating the threat and danger,” then the intensity and persistence of anxiety are greatly diminished. — Clark & Beck, 2010, p. 195

The Stoic philosophy, which originally inspired cognitive therapy, had also endorsed a similar acceptance of unpleasant emotions, although this is often forgotten today. When people speak of “being stoic” today (lower-case) they typically mean “having a stiff upper-lip”, i.e., suppressing or concealing unpleasant and painful emotions. Several modern research studies have shown that this is often an unhealthy way of coping, though. Lower-case stoicism tends to do the opposite what people believe by making us more emotionally vulnerable in the long-run rather than more resilient — it’s really a sign, in most cases, of weakness not strength. In contrast, Stoic philosophy led to cognitive therapy, and modern evidence-based protocols for psychological resilience training, which many studies have shown to be healthy and effective.

Indeed, the Stoics make a more nuanced distinction between aspects of emotion that are involuntary and those that are voluntary. We should accept the former, as natural and inevitable, but take greater responsibility for the latter. When we’re caught in a threatening situation, they said, like being in a ship during a storm at sea, even a seasoned sailor will often turn pale and tremble, if his life is in imminent danger. We shouldn’t struggle against those feelings or view them as bad. However, we don’t need to make things worse either by worrying or ruminating about events afterwards, or complaining excessively about them.

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