V. The Stoic Solution to Stress

Freedom, self-respect, and 40 concepts you should know

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

We just updated our email timing, check out the update section to learn more about that.

Have an excellent week.
– Caleb

🏛️ Theory

Two people can experience the same event in radically different ways. One as a triumph, the other as torture.

Consider how people respond to exercise. Some never grow accustomed to the discomfort and pain. Others learn to enjoy it.

In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal​​ observes that most people respond to stress negatively. It’s unhealthy for them. Stress likely causes them to live shorter and more painful lives.

Yet some people find stress beneficial. They live longer and happier lives because of it.

Summarizing a study, Kelly writes:

The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.

Kelly McGonigal, Upside of Stress

What’s the difference? Interpretation. The group that finds stress beneficial doesn’t see it as bad but as an ingredient in a meaningful life. By viewing stress differently, they do not suffer harmful consequences.

How we think matters. We are not locked into our feelings.

It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.19

This is the foundation of the Stoic model of emotion. Our value judgments about stress determine how healthy (or not) it is. If you believe that every stress is harmful, you must work to change that opinion.

How can you do that?

The Stoics offer numerous techniques. Let’s mention three today: pause, describe, and reframe. The last one is the most important.

1️⃣ First, pause. Do not immediately jump to conclusions. Do not make assumptions.

2️⃣ Then describe the world objectively – like a thoughtful scientist. Marcus Aurelius practices this by reminding himself that the royal robe is only sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of shellfish. It is not the clothing of a god emperor. He does this to avoid losing his head over the symbols of power. Roman emperors who came before him were not as wise.

3️⃣ Finally, reframe the event. We’re people seeking to live virtuously. Reframe every event with that purpose in mind.

People who find stress beneficial are not harmed because they’re not trying to live a comfortable and painless life. Instead, they’re aiming to be excellent and enthusiastically do great things.

Hence, they reframe stress as a sign that something important is at stake. Everything good in life requires facing setbacks: family, love, health, art, and work. Stress itself isn’t bad, what’s tragic is when it gets in the way of living well. The obstacle is the way. Reframe negative events as necessary parts of a good life.

So, I try remember these three steps when I feel down: pause, describe, and reframe (Check out the fourth letter for more examples of this strategy). I stop, take account of what is going on, and then return to what matters – being who I am meant to be.

Marcus Aurelius reminded himself that he has the power to eliminate negative emotions at any moment. He had more important things to focus on:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.47

We can do the same. We each have great things to do.

🎯 Action

When you encounter stress:

  • Pause

  • Describe the situation in objective terms

  • Reframe it in terms of your values

🎺 Update

Thanks for the feedback on email frequency. We decided to send out the Stoa Letter three times a week. Some of you requested more emails, others asked for fewer. The new schedule aims to strike a balance.

The most commonly cited reason for preferring fewer letters was that there maybe too much to read and apply for a week. For those of you in that position, know that we’re keeping every email short, the links are always skimmable, and each week will have a theme. Every meditation on Stoic theory will stand alone, but will also be related to the other letters in the week. We will not be bouncing around between random topics.

This week’s theme is the Stoic approach toward meaning and stress.

🔗 Links

🎧️ Listen to Dr. William Stephens talk about Epictetus on freedom and self-respect in the most recent episode of Stoa Conversations. Two key ideas:

  • We can find freedom by aligning our desires with what is under our control: our judgements and intentions.

  • We build self-respect when our actions mirror or even surpass those of our role models.

The discussion on role models and Epictetus’s role ethics will be useful if you’re stuck thinking about how to reframe situations. By admiring others, we express our values. Reframing events in the way your models would.

🧘 Try this longer view from above meditation:

📗 An intriguing article on 40 useful concepts you should know.

Despite the headline, you don't need to know most of these. Several are not important and some may even be misleading. However, the piece does include some gems and figuring out which concepts are useful is a great way to practice Stoic logic. These three stand out to me:

We often try to avoid info that we fear will cause us stress. Thus bills and work emails remain unopened, bank balances remain unchecked. This is counterproductive because ignoring a problem doesn't eliminate the problem or your anxiety; it only prolongs them.

Ostrich Effect

We often attach value to things simply because they're hard to get. People will be more attracted to a painting if it costs $3 million than if it costs $3. The price becomes a feature of the product in that it allows the buyer to signal affluence to others.

Veblen Goods

If a task would take less than two minutes, do it immediately. This is because adding the task to your mental to-do list, keeping it in your memory, and managing the anxiety of not having done it will take far more effort than just doing it now.

The Two-Minute Rule

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🏆️ Share The Stoa Letter

If you find what we’re doing useful, please share it. As a token of thanks, we’re kicking off a mini-referral program. More rewards coming soon!

1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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