We all have stressors in our lives. At times, they are so many or so intense that they can seem overwhelming. So, if you wish that life was easier, that’s totally understandable.
But at the same time, that wish is futile. You can’t control what life throws at you. No matter what you do, you can’t stop stressors from invading your life.
What you can do, however, is decide how you want to perceive them. You can choose to respond to the stressors wisely and rationally. And in the process, you can learn how to thrive even in the midst of chaos.
Here are the Stoic’s best techniques for relieving — and even growing stronger from — stress and anxiety.
1. Turn Obstacles Into Challenges
A setback has often cleared the way for greater prosperity. Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights.
Most of us consider adversities bad — obstacles that prevent us from achieving our goals and being happy. You can change this view by recognizing that hardships provide excellent opportunities for you to train yourself.
Just like an athlete uses obstacles on the training ground, you can use adversities to get stronger.
You can think of it as “mental resistance training.” Each time you face an obstacle, you’ve stepped into your mental gym. Life has placed the dumbbells in front of you and given you a chance to get stronger. This perspective reframes obstacles into challenges:
- A long line at the grocery store becomes patience training.
- A meeting with an unpleasant person becomes compassion training.
- A setback in a personal goal becomes persistence training.
We all face obstacles in our lives. It’s how we choose to respond to them that matters. If you perceive them as threats, you’ll get anxious. But if you view them as challenges, you’ll get excited.
Cultivate a “bring it on!” mentality, and you can use each obstacle as an opportunity to grow stronger.
2. Balance Your Perspective
Others have been plundered, indiscriminately, set upon, betrayed, beaten up, attacked with poison or with calumny – mention anything you like, it has happened to plenty of people.
Our minds have a tendency to blow things way out of proportion. As a result, even the slightest annoyance can seem like a big deal.
The Stoics taught that we can balance our perspective by contemplating how much worse off we could be.
- If you’re frustrated while waiting in line at the store, be grateful that you live in a country where food is abundantly available.
- If you’ve had a cold for weeks, think about all the people in your local hospital fighting much more serious diseases.
- If you feel mistreated by someone, imagine all the people who have been oppressed, enslaved, and even tortured.
Put each situation into proper perspective, and you’ll find them much easier to handle. Occasionally, you might even find yourself laughing at trivial stuff that’s been bothering you.
3. Adjust Your Expectations
Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs, nor the world what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.
— Marcus Aurelius
Most people assume that the situation they’re in creates their emotional response. But that’s not accurate. It’s their expectations about the situation that triggers their emotions.
For instance, imagine that your boss treats you poorly, and you get agitated. In this situation, you’re not agitated because your boss mistreated you. You’re agitated because you didn’t expect your boss to treat you that way.
But what made you believe that your boss would always treat you well? What made you think a human would never misbehave? People treat other people poorly all the time. Bosses frequently annoy the people they manage.
Your frustrations are always a result of your own unrealistic expectations. So, don’t complain when reality doesn’t work out the way you think it should. Instead, ask yourself what’s wrong about your expectations, and change them.
The better your expectations align with reality, the less frustration you’ll experience.
4. Minimize Your Suffering
Pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination.
— Marcus Aurelius
Pain is an inevitable part of life. Suffering, however, is optional.
Pain is the immediate reaction you have to a hurtful event. Suffering is what happens when you add to the pain in your imagination.
Imagine, for instance, that you’ve injured your leg. Your pain comes from the damaged tissue. Your suffering comes from your thoughts about the pain.
“This pain is awful. What if it never goes away? Maybe I’ll never be able to walk properly again?”
Anxious thoughts like these can add a tremendous amount of suffering to your pain. So, pay attention to the narrative in your mind.
Remember that thoughts are not facts. They’re just thoughts. And it’s within your power to choose to believe them or not.
Try to see your situation as clearly and objectively as possible. Yes, you’re in pain, but that’s all you really know. Creating stories about what the pain might entail will only add unnecessary suffering.
5. Remember That Nothing Is New
Everything that happens is as simple and familiar as the rose in spring, the fruit in summer: disease, death, blasphemy, conspiracy… everything that makes stupid people happy or angry.
— Marcus Aurelius
As I’m writing this, COVID-19 has the world in its grip. The number of infected people and confirmed deaths are staggering. And each day, newspapers worldwide are publishing a seemingly endless stream of alarming headlines about the virus.
In times like these, it can seem like what’s going on right now is unparalleled in history. Extreme situations create a sense that we’re experiencing something unprecedented. But we’re really not.
There have been many horrible pandemics before COVID-191. The Black Death, Smallpox, the Great Plagues, the Spanish Flu, and HIV/AIDS are just a few examples.
It may not seem like it in the news, but whatever is happening right now has taken place many times before. That’s why Stoicism is still relevant to this day. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus faced very similar challenges as you and me.
Diseases, wars, natural disasters, poverty, and greed have all been around since long before we were born. So, don’t make them out to be more significant than they are.
The places, names, and faces might be new, but the events themselves are as old as time. Everything is as familiar as the rose in spring.
The world hasn’t gone crazy — it’s been crazy all along. Keep that in mind, and you’ll drastically reduce your stress and fear about what’s going on in the news.
How to Relieve Stress & Anxiety, In Summary
- Turn obstacles into challenges. Use obstacles as “mental resistance training” to continually grow stronger.
- Balance your perspective. Eliminate annoyances by contemplating how much worse off you could be.
- Adjust your expectations. When you’re feeling frustrated, change your unrealistic assumptions.
- Minimize your suffering. Pay attention to the narrative in your mind, and let go of anxious thoughts.
- Remember that nothing is new. Always put extreme events into its proper historical context.