Stoicism: Advice for Young People

How can Ancient Wisdom Help the Youth of Today?

How can Ancient Wisdom Help the Youth of Today?

Words of advice for young people? I’m a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and the author of several books on Stoic philosophy. I’m always giving talks and workshops on self-improvement, or talking to people about ways we can help ourselves grow more emotionally resilient. There’s a perennial question that keeps coming up in these sort of conversations whenever a good idea emerges — why isn’t this being taught in schools?

There are a lot of important things we don’t teach young people, for some reason. Probably far too many to list here. (Although we’re well into the 21st century now, most of the time they’re still not even being taught proper sex education!) So I’ve set myself the more modest goal of explaining three basic lessons from Stoic philosophy, which might be of particular interest to younger people.

1. Our thoughts shape our feelings

When we’re upset about something, or someone, we naturally tend to blame our feelings on whatever it is we’re upset about. “If I’m angry with my girlfriend, it’s her fault.” What if that’s a mistake, though? When his friends got in an argument with someone, Socrates used to ask them if others felt the same way about the things that were annoying them. What if other people feel differently about the thing that upsets you? It can’t be the external event alone that’s making you feel that way, otherwise everyone else would be upset about it too — there must be something else going on.

Our own thoughts and attitudes determine our emotions in most situations. Maybe that seems obvious but we tend to forget it. We see other people making themselves upset unnecessarily about trivial things but we don’t realize when we’re doing it ourselves. That’s because we all have a huge blind spot for the way our thoughts influence our own feelings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reputedly said that you can see the tiny sliver of wood in your brother’s eye but not the huge plank of wood in your own. We easily spot small ways in which other people are biased but we don’t notice ourselves doing the same thing, even if it’s on a much bigger scale.

It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” That quote was made famous by early cognitive-behavioural therapists because it expresses in very plain language what we call the “cognitive theory of emotion”. At first, it might not be obvious how remembering this helps you but trust me it does. The moment we genuinely realize that our feelings might be different and that there are other possible ways of looking at a situation, we free ourselves, to some extent, from the grip of strong emotions. Psychologists call this freedom “cognitive distancing”, and many research studies have shown how powerful it can be as a way of managing feelings such as anxiety, anger, or depression.

There are many techniques that can help you separate your thoughts from external events in this way. For instance, writing the upsetting thoughts down on a piece of paper and looking at them as if they’re words spoken by someone else can help. Alternatively, if I notice myself thinking “This guy is an idiot, and I can’t stand him”, I might restate that slowly as if I’m observing my thoughts:

I notice right now that Donald keeps telling himself: ‘This guy is an idiot, and I can’t stand him.’

There are many other similar techniques. With practice, it becomes much easier to view our own thoughts from a detached perspective. However, the key is just to remind yourself that it’s not things that upset us but rather our own opinions about them, particularly our value judgments. Getting into the habit of doing that will give you a lot more freedom and resilience when coping with distressing emotions.

2. Getting upset involves selective thinking

There are many modern studies that show the ways in which our thinking is distorted by strong upsetting emotions. We don’t usually realize, of course, when it’s happening. Once again, though, it’s easy to notice that other people aren’t thinking straight when they become very angry, anxious, or depressed. The ancient Stoics said that “anger is temporary madness” and they were basically right about that. We become less rational when we’re upset and worse at solving problems, especially complex interpersonal or social ones.

When people are anxious, for instance, their thinking becomes biased in terms of overestimating risks. We all know that anxious people tend to exaggerate signs of danger. They also tend to underestimate their ability to cope. When we’re afraid, our brain is in a different mode of functioning. We go looking for more things to worry about. It’s a sort of confirmation bias. Sometimes this is called “threat monitoring” — where anxious people are on the lookout for things to be scared about. Conversely, that often means ignoring potential signs of safety. Someone who’s not feeling anxious will look at the same situation in a more balanced way, rather than focusing on the worst-case scenario.

The same is true of other feelings, such as anger, where we look for more reasons to get annoyed, and depression, where we interpret everything more negatively. However, realizing that strong emotions distort our thinking in this way can help free us, to some extent, from their influence. If I’m feeling depressed, and I know for sure that depression makes me look at things negatively, I can tell myself “This is just my depression talking — it’s not the only way of looking at things.” Generally, strong negative emotions make our thinking more selective, narrowing down its scope. So trying to broaden our perspective can help counter their effects. Looking at the bigger picture is usually a more balanced and rational way to view things.

For instance, when people are anxious they tend to visualize things that could go wrong. However, that means choosing a slice of time to focus on — it’s selective thinking. We know that worrying tends to focus on the worst moment in a sequence of events. Someone worried about losing their job would focus on the moment their boss tells them they’re being made redundant, perhaps. Having a narrow focus on the problem is like putting it under a magnifying glass. And selective thinking is also like what we call a lie of omission — it’s a form of self-deception.

One of the simplest and most powerful techniques used in cognitive therapy is simply to ask “And then what would probably happen next?”, and repeat that question a few times. Losing your job is tough at first but after a while, you’ll probably find another job. It might still be a short-term setback but thinking about the bigger picture in this way is not as overwhelming as focusing only on the worst moment.

3. Anxious feelings abate naturally if we let them

I would describe this as, arguably, the most robustly established finding in the entire field of psychotherapy research. It’s also something that ancient authors, including the Stoics, seem to have realized. Strong feelings, particularly anxious ones, tend to naturally fade over time, under the right conditions. Psychologists call this “emotional habituation”, and it happens even in simple organisms. It’s so basic that it’s almost more like a physiological process than a psychological one.

Imagine a woman with a severe spider phobia enters a room filled with spiders. Our heart rate is actually a pretty reliable measure of anxiety. So what will happen to her heart rate? It will go up, of course, as her phobia is triggered. If it’s a severe phobia it will probably go up from roughly 70bpm to around 120–140bpm within less than ten seconds, as though she’s started running pretty hard. And that’s what she’ll feel like doing! She’ll also experience a strong urge to “escape” the situation, by leaving the room. That’s how anxiety works, right?

Why on earth would she remain in a room filled with spiders if she’s got a spider phobia? Well, usually it would be because someone else is there, encouraging the individual to wait it out, and endure their feelings of anxiety for a while longer. That’s what therapists normally do when using the evidence-based phobia treatment we call “exposure therapy”. It’s not the only time people do this, though. As a child, your parents (if they’re smart!) might have encouraged you to face certain fears in order to overcome them.

So what will happen to her heart rate if our spider phobic doesn’t leave the room? What goes up must come down, right? Her heart rate will gradually reduce toward its natural resting level, or thereabouts. How long will that take? Well that varies but in some cases it might just be five or ten minutes, in more severe cases it might be half an hour or more.

Then we should ask what would happen if she came back and did the same thing again the next day. Well, her heart rate would go up but not as high as before, and it would reduce more quickly. What about if she did it on a third day? Well, her heart rate would increase but even less this time, and it would reduce, once again, even more easily. Eventually, maybe after 3–5 hours, someone with a simple animal phobia will find their anxiety has pretty much extinguished. That tends to be a lasting, permanent, reduction in most cases, unless there’s a reason for it to relapse — such as being attacked by a pack of wild spiders! In fact, exposure therapy of this kind has about a 90% success rate in clinical trials.

For exposure therapy to work it has to be prolonged enough. The most common reason for it not working is because the individual quits and leaves the situation too early. It also has to be repeated several times. There are other variables that can interfere with our emotional processing but generally speaking, repeated, prolonged exposure tends naturally to bring about emotional habituation, or the extinction of the feelings of anxiety being triggered. It’s the simplest technique in modern psychotherapy — so much so that therapists can find it a bit boring to do after a while. We know that this is how anxiety works and yet most people do the opposite and avoid their fears rather than facing them systematically.

So why aren’t these things taught in schools? Good question. Nobody knows. I think good parents, throughout the centuries, have always taught some of these basic psychological lessons to their children. Many of us have to learn the hard way, though, through a mixture of studying books, and trial and error learning from the school of hard knocks. I hope that this article helps some young people to learn simple ways they can cope better with upsetting emotions. Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to share this article if you can think of anyone who might find it helpful.

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