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Psychotherapy Resilience Stoicism Stoicism

How Stoicism Could Help You Build Resilience

Combining stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

  • Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy that inspired modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Stoics like Epictetus taught that it’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions (cognitions) about them.
  • People identify with Stoicism as a philosophy of life, which may be more permanent than skills learned in CBT or resilience training.

Read the rest of this article on Psychology Today…

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Books Philosophy Philosophy of CBT Psychotherapy Stoicism

The Books I’ve Written on Stoicism

I’ve published about seven books so far on philosophy and psychotherapy. People often ask about one book but aren’t aware of the others so I’ve put together a short article explaining what they’re about. If you’re interested, you can see more info on my publications, including journal articles, some foreign translations, and books on psychotherapy not mentioned below, on my Google Scholar, Goodreads, and Amazon profile pages.

1. Ancient Lives: Marcus Aurelius (in press)

This is a prose biography of Marcus Aurelius, which will be part of the new Yale University Press Ancient Lives series, edited by James Romm. This book is finished and should (I think) be published around Spring 2023. This was the third book that I wrote in a row about Marcus Aurelius. It focuses on how Stoic philosophy influenced his life, and his rule as emperor, and how his personal relationships shaped and reveal aspects of his character. For instance, the first chapter focuses on Marcus’ relationship with his mother. I’ll publish more details on social media as they become available.

2. Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Verissimus Cover

Verissimus is a graphic novel, published in July 2022, by St, Martin’s Press. It tells the story of Marcus Aurelius’ life in comic-book panels, with a lot of emphasis on his study and application of Stoic philosophy, particularly how it helped him to conquer his anger.

This was the second of three books that I wrote about the life of Marcus Aurelius, and how it connected with his philosophy. The graphic novel format meant that it’s a very different experience, though, from reading a prose biography or a self-help book. I wrote this book for adults – it’s a graphic novel not a comic – but I have to admit that a lot of readers have said their kids were attracted to the cover design and artwork, and stole their copy!

3. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) is a self-help book. Most of the chapters begin with an anecdote from the life of Marcus Aurelius, closely based on the surviving historical sources. This is followed by a discussion of how Stoic philosophy can be applied in daily life, and then a comparison with techniques from modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which draw on my clinical background as a psychotherapist.

When I first proposed this book the title and the idea of combining three genres (history, philosophy, and psychology) seemed controversial – like a bit of a gamble – but it worked. Roman Emperor is my most popular book. It was the number one bestselling philosophy book in the US in the weeks following its release and was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. It’s since been translated into eighteen different languages.

4. Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) is part of Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series. It was so popular that a revised second edition was published in 2018, which added an extra chapter on death contemplation. This is a self-help book, which provides careful instructions on how to apply Stoic practices in daily life. It also includes many comparisons with cognitive-behavioural therapy and other evidence-based psychological strategies.

The Teach Yourself series follows a strict and well-established format. Chapters begin with relevant quotes, and short quizzes, and include practical exercises, guides to terminology, key points to remember, examples, recommended reading, etc. It’s designed to make it easy to put the advice into practice in daily life.

5. Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience

build your resilience book cover

Build your Resilience (2012) was my first book for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series. It’s a self-help book about what psychologists call “emotional resilience training”, which is basically training in preventative strategies designed to reduce the risk of mental health problems in the future by making you more able to cope with stressful situations. Like Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, it follows a strict self-help guide format, with lots of info boxes, and practical steps described.

Resilience building draws heavily on cognitive-behavioural therapy but I mainly focused on recent “third-wave” approaches, particularly Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There are also chapters discussing research on resilience and vulnerability, and evidence-based approaches to relaxation techniques, worry management, and problem-solving. This book contains a lot of practical psychological advice – I wrote it partly to be used by my own CBT clients and trainee therapists. However, it also contains a chapter on Stoicism and references to Stoicism are interspersed throughout, comparing Stoic concepts and techniques to the evidence-based psychological approaches employed in modern resilience training.

6. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition

The Philosophy of CBT (2010) was my first book on Stoicism. I’d already been researching the subject, writing about it, speaking about it at conferences, etc., for over a decade before I decided to publish a book. So it contains a wealth of research on the history of philosophy and psychotherapy. My first degree is in philosophy (Aberdeen) and my masters was in philosophy and psychotherapy, at an interdisciplinary centre in Sheffield University. I then trained in counselling and psychotherapy, which became my profession. I wanted to do a PhD about Stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioural therapy but couldn’t find a university department with a suitably qualified supervisor. So, to cut a long story short, I ended up just writing a book, instead of a dissertation, which was published in the UK by Karnac.

Karnac were later bought by Routledge, who commissioned me to produce a revised second edition in 2020, as the book had become so popular. The new edition contains an additional chapter focusing on more recent “third-wave” approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and how they compare to Stoicism. I was surprised at its reception because it was intended as an academic publication, aimed at philosophers and psychologists – but very few of them read it! Instead, by accident, it somehow reached a “lay” audience, who embraced it as a sort of self-help guide to Stoicism. So I accidentally found myself making the transition from academic researcher and writer, to self-help author.

Other Books

I’ve also contributed chapters to several books on Stoicism.

  1. “The Stoic Influence on Modern Psychotherapy” in The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016), edited by John Sellars
  2. Introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: The Philosophy Classic (Capstone Classics, 2020), which I also helped edit
  3. Introduction to Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic: The Ancient Classic (Capstone, 2021)
  4. “Marcus Aurelius and Psychotherapy” in The Cambridge Companion to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (in press).
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Excerpts

New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

This new book by Donald Robertson, the author of The Philosophy of CBT, contains a chapter on Stoic philosophy in relation to resilience-building.

Psychological Resilience-Building

Teach-Yourself-ResilienceCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

Based on my book for the Teach Yourself series, Build your Resilience(2012).

What is Resilience?

How can you improve your ability to “thrive and survive” in any situation? What disadvantages, stresses, or difficulties do you currently face? What future problems might you need to anticipate and prepare for? What strengths and assets have helped you to cope well with difficult events in the past? What can you learn from the way other people deal with life’s challenges? These are all questions about psychological resilience. Building resilience is a way of improving your ability to cope with adversity or stressful situations in general.

We all need some degree of resilience in order to cope with the problems life throws at us. Indeed, research shows that resilience is normal and involves ordinary skills and resources. Everyone is capable of being resilient and becoming more so by developing appropriate coping strategies. The types of adversity that demand resilience can range from ordinary “daily hassles” to major setbacks, stressful life events such as divorce, redundancy, bankruptcy, illness, or bereavement, and perhaps even more severe trauma in some cases. Most people believe that they are at least moderately resilient. However, few people are as resilient as they could be in all areas of life, and there are always more aspects of resilience that can be developed.

Building Resilience

So how is resilience built? The American Psychological Association (APA) has published its own research-based public information leaflet entitled The Road to Resilience, developed by a team of six psychologists working in this area. Their ten recommendations for developing and maintaining resilience can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. Maintain good relationships with family, friends, and others
  2. Avoid seeing situations as insurmountable problems and look for ways forward where possible
  3. Accept certain circumstances as being outside of your control, where necessary
  4. Set realistic goals, in small steps if necessary, and plan to work regularly on things that are achievable
  5. Take decisive action to improve your situation rather than simply avoiding problems
  6. Look for opportunities for personal growth by trying to find positive or constructive meaning in events
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself and develop confidence in your ability to solve problems
  8. Keep things in perspective by looking at them in a balanced way and focusing on the bigger picture
  9. Maintain a hopeful and optimistic outlook, focusing on concrete goals, rather than worrying about possible future catastrophes
  10. Take care of yourself, paying attention to your own needs and feelings and looking after your body by taking healthy physical exercise and regularly engaging in enjoyable, relaxing and healthy activities, perhaps including practices such as meditation

Books like Build your Resiliencecan help you learn specific techniques and strategies to develop these attitudes and skills, and learn other resilient ways of thinking and acting.

The Penn Resilience Program (PRP)

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) is perhaps the best example of an established resilience-building approach. It was developed initially as a means of preventing depression over the long-term with schoolchildren, based on Martin Seligman’s earlier work on “learned optimism” and adapting the techniques of standard cognitive therapy to serve a preventative rather than remedialfunction. It has been supported by compelling evidence showing its effectiveness as preventative treatment for depression and also, in some studies, for anxiety. For example, up to two years after undergoing classes in resilience-building, children considered at risk of depression were found to be about half as likely to have actually developed it as their peers in “control” groups, who did not receive any resilience training (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, p. 11). In schoolchildren, for whom this approach was originally designed, research found that “conduct problems”, their behaviour, also improved as a result.

The version of the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) described by Reivich and Shatté (2002) consists of “seven key skills”:

  1. Monitoring your thoughts: Learning to catch your unhelpful thoughts as they occur and to understand how they influence your feelings and actions
  2. Spotting “thinking errors”: Spotting common errors (or “thinking traps”) among your thoughts such as excessive self-blame or jumping to conclusions, etc.
  3. Identifying unhelpful beliefs: Identifying unhelpful underlying (“core” or “iceberg”) beliefs and evaluating them
  4. Challenging unhelpful beliefs: This includes problem-solving as well as learning to dispute faulty “Why?” beliefs, or rumination, about the causation of problems that can get in the way of solving them
  5. Challenging catastrophic worries: Dealing specifically with “What if?” thinking, or unrealistic worry, by challenging catastrophic beliefs about consequences of problems and focusing instead on the most likely outcomes (“decatastrophising” or “putting things in perspective”)
  6. Rapid calming and focusing strategies: Coping skills for use in real-world situations, consisting of a simplified form of Applied Relaxation (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, pp. 192-196) and coping imagery used to “calm” stressful emotions and distraction (“focusing”) techniques to quickly manage intrusive thoughts, worry, and rumination
  7. Real-time resilience”: This involves using a much-abbreviated version of the disputation skills (4 and 5) above to challenge unhelpful thoughts more quickly and replace them with resilient ones in specific situations by completing the “tag lines” or self-statements: “A more accurate way of seeing this is…”, “That’s not true because…”, and “A more likely outcome is… and I can… to deal with it.” (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, pp. 206-210)

New Book: Build your Resilience

Due for publication by Hodder in May 2012, as part of the popular Teach Yourself series of self-help books.

ISBN: 1444168711

Resilience: How to Thrive and Survive in Any Situationhelps you to prepare for adversity by finding healthier ways of responding to stressful thoughts and feelings. You will learn a comprehensive toolkit of effective therapeutic strategies and techniques, drawing upon innovative “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), combined with elements of established psychological approaches to stress prevention and management. The book also draws upon classical Stoic philosophy to provide a wider context for resilience-building.

This book is a complete course in resilience training, covering everything from building long-term resilience by developing psychological flexibility, mindfulness and valued action, through specific behavioural skills such as applied relaxation, worry postponement, problem-solving, and assertiveness. Each chapter contains a self-assessment test, case study, practical exercises and reminder boxes and concludes with a reminder of the key points of the chapter (Focus Points) and a round-up of what to expect in the next (Next Step), which will whet your appetite for what’s coming and how it relates to what you’ve just read.

The author, Donald Robertson is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Harley Street. He is a CBT practitioner specialising in treating anxiety and building resilience and director of a leading therapy training organisation. He is the author of many journal articles and three books on therapy, The Philosophy of CBT, The Discovery of Hypnosis, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy, and blogs regularly from his website www.londoncognitive.com.

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