When worry, rumination, or other troubling thoughts grab our attention for prolonged periods, it can be difficult to stop them. However, Epictetus describes dealing with intrusive thoughts in a way that’s similar to a highly-effective modern psychological strategy used in behaviour therapy, called the “stimulus control” method or “worry postponement”. For example, initial research showed that ordinary students who employed this strategy for a few weeks were able to roughly half the frequency, intensity, and duration of upsetting worry/rumination. (It’s since become the basis of most modern cognitive-behavioural therapy protocols for treating pathological worry in severe anxiety disorders.)
Epictetus tells his students repeatedly that they should spot automatic thoughts and feelings (“impressions”) when they arise and refrain from allowing themselves to be swept along with them. He gives several different coping strategies, including postponing or delaying responding to them until later, once your feelings have settled down and you’re more able to think things through calmly and philosophically, with mindfulness and detachment. This is an important strategy because worry often appears to be an attempt to solve real problems, so people have mixed feelings about whether or not to continue dwelling on their worries. However, the healthy response appears to be one that says “If this is really important, I’ll choose to think about it when I’m ready, rather than allowing it to hijack my train of thought.” It’s perfectly natural to postpone thinking about problems. Most of us do this when trying to go to sleep at night, if something pops into our mind (“I’ll come back to this in the morning”) or when busy with some other task that requires our attention (“I’ll think about this later, when I’ve finished what I’m doing”). Some people find it difficult to set aside thoughts temporarily, though, and that can make them more vulnerable to emotional disturbance, e.g., they may lie awake at night worrying about things. (Of course, the middle of the night, when you’re half-asleep, isn’t always the optimum time for problem-solving!)
There’s another important situation during which people obviously have to set aside intrusive thoughts and feelings: meditation. If I’m trying to meditate and suddenly a thought pops into my head about a problem at work, the best response is to accept its presence and view it in a somewhat detached manner, without either going along with the train of thought or struggling to try to block it from my mind. Psychologists call this “middle way” between worrying and suppressing thoughts “cognitive distancing”, as we’ve seen. Epictetus describes something very similar:
Therefore train yourself without hesitation to say in response to every harsh appearance that “you are [merely] an appearance and in no way the thing appearing.” Next examine it and evaluate it against these the [philosophical] rules and standards which you have, but first and foremost this, whether it concerns things that are up to us or it concerns those things not up to us. And if it concerns something that is not up to us, have ready-to-hand the answer: “It is nothing to me.” Epictetus, Handbook, 1
Elsewhere he says:
Bear in mind that it is not the man who reviles or strikes you that insults you, but it is your judgement that these men are insulting you. Therefore, when someone irritates you, be assured that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. And so make it your first endeavour not to be carried away by the impression; for if once you gain time and respite, you will more easily become master of yourself. Epictetus, Handbook, 20
This was actually quite a well-known strategy in ancient philosophy and similar methods were sometimes used then, and now, to deal with anger by taking a “time-out” from the situation until the feelings have naturally abated, and then returning to problem-solve things more rationally later.
Throughout the next week, we’d like you to spot when you’re being “swept away” by unruly feelings and to take a step back from your thoughts, as you did in the Leaves on a Stream meditation. Agree with yourself, if appropriate, to postpone thinking about the issue until a fixed time later in the day, perhaps during your Evening Meditation routine, when you can give it your full attention and evaluate it more calmly and philosophically.
As Epictetus says, the first question to ask yourself when doing this is: “Do these feelings concern something that’s under my direct control or not?” Next, as he advises, you should consider the most “virtuous” way to respond, in accord with your own core values. Again, Epictetus mentions that it can be helpful when doing this to ask yourself what the ideal Stoic wise man (or woman) would do in the same situation or, as he puts it, what Socrates or Zeno would do, to provide yourself with a role-model. It’s important that you understand worry postponement is about learning to take charge of when you pick up or put down thoughts, and not an excuse to either avoid thinking about problems or to dwell on them morbidly. Your aim is to pick the right time, when you’re in the best frame of mind, and then tackle problems with greater patience and self-awareness, so that you can think them through rationally, and perhaps arrive at a decision.
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices for self-improvement.
Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.