The Basic Concept

The final stage of training in a psychological skill often concentrates on:

  1. Generalisation, or applying it to a wider and wider range of situations
  2. Relapse prevention, or anticipating potential setbacks in the future and preparing for them in advance

The ancient Stoics were interested in achieving comprehensive and lasting personal transformation, so it’s not surprising that they employed a similar approach.  They did seek to address short-term emotional problems, somewhat like we would in modern counselling or psychological therapy, such as coping with bereavement or other traumatic life events.  However, most of the time, their focus was on building long-term psychological well-being and preparation for coping with future setbacks, which is similar to what we call emotional “resilience-building” today.  To put it another way, Stoicism is more than a therapy – it’s a philosophy of life.  That said, even in the ancient world, many people were initially drawn to Stoicism as a way of coping with short-term emotional challenges, and only later became convinced of the philosophical truth of its underlying doctrines and its value as an actual way of life.

One of the best-known strategies employed in ancient Stoicism is called the premeditation of adversity (praemeditatio malorum, in Latin).  This involves training yourself in advance to face future misfortunes or setbacks with philosophical equanimity by repeatedly visualising typical “catastrophes” or losses as if they’re happening right now, while practising Stoic equanimity.  (William Irvine describes a similar technique in his bestselling book on Stoicism, which he calls “negative visualisation”, although the rationale he presents is somewhat different from the ancient Stoics.)  What the Stoics describe happens to be very similar to one of the most robustly-established techniques in research on modern psychotherapy, called “imaginal exposure”.  (Many different names are used to describe roughly similar techniques.)  We know quite a lot now about the psychological processes involved in this strategy and the best way to make it work.  The most important fact is that anxiety and many other negative feelings, generally speaking, tend to naturally abate over time if exposure is repeated and prolonged enough, and certain interfering factors are prevented.  Psychologists call the process by which anxiety naturally wears off “habituation”.

For the purposes of general resilience training, therefore, we would recommend that you pick the things you’re going to visualise very carefully, and do not attempt to face situations that seem potentially overwhelming.  Start with small things and work your way up, in other words.  (Psychologists call this “graduated” exposure.)  Don’t rush things.  Be systematic in your approach.  The ancient Stoics left some comments that hint they may have been aware of the process of habituation.  However, they didn’t leave clear instructions about one key fact: the amount of time required.  In therapy, clients with clinically-severe anxiety are normally asked to visualise upsetting scenes for roughly 15-30 minutes at a time, every day for a couple of weeks or more.  One of the most common mistakes people make is cutting this process short, before their feelings have had time to fully abate.  As a rough guide, it’s usually recommended that you rate the intensity of your feelings from 0-100% and continue the exercise, each day, until they’ve reduced to at least half their peak level.  Again, if you begin with easy targets, mildly upsetting events, you’re likely to find the process of imaginal exposure takes roughly 5-15 minutes or less.  However, practising mindfulness strategies of the kind you’ve already been learning can often reduce the time required, and this varies considerably from one person to another.  Don’t try to force your feelings to reduce, though, your goal is to accept them, albeit in a detached manner, and allow them to settle down naturally over time.  It’s very important that you don’t cut the exercise short as doing so can occasionally make negative feelings worse.  You should continue to patiently visualise the problem situation until your discomfort has reduced enough.  Doing this repeatedly, over several days or weeks, tends to lead to a permanent reduction in the emotional reaction caused.

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