Stoicism Health Philosophy

Using Stoicism to Cope with Uncertainty

At a time when many of us are feeling a lack of control over our life circumstances, it’s important to embrace a perspective or philosophy that can help us remain steadfast and prepare us for the inevitable changes ahead. I, like many, have felt both the primary and secondary effects of this global health challenge, and in both scenarios, my focus on controlling how I respond, instead of trying to control the situation, has helped me cope much better.

Having, what I believe was the Covid-19 virus at the beginning of January, and then recently having my income stopped as a result of the lockdown, has helped me accept that there’s a lot of stuff that is simply out of my control, and that the more I worry about and try to control what I can’t, the more I suffer.

About a week or two into the lockdown a good friend of mine introduced me to Stoicism and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which has been one of my revelations of this whole experience! After venting to him about my take on covid-19 and how draconian the lockdown measures were, he simply diffused me by asking me if it is within my power to change any of it, and also if my energy and emotions would be better spent focusing on the things that I can change. As a deep thinker (which he knows me to be), this perspective instantly made me realise how much I was getting caught up in useless thoughts, feelings and emotions about stuff that I simply have no control over.

Limitless accessibility to information has probably contributed to us all feeling more involved in global issues that, in reality, we have little to no control over. The current pandemic is a strong example of something that many of us are investing lots of thought, emotion and feelings into, yet have no control over. From a practical standpoint, this energy would be far better spent on the things we can influence, such as our responses to life’s challenges.

At this time of hypervigilance and instability it is easy to fall into a reactive state of complaining, criticism and negativity, rather than channel our emotions and energy into building greater resilience and gratitude in response to crisis. I must admit that I have found myself becoming increasingly more agitated as the lockdown has progressed, often sucked into the black hole of social media and reacting to the incessant barrage of news and views. This not only steals precious time away from the more important aspects of life that are within my control, but also feeds a useless ego that can be stifling to the open mind.

Stoicism reminds us how unpredictable our world can be, and also how fragile and brief our lives are. It teaches us how to be in control of ourselves and to act on things that can be acted upon.  In relation to our current situation, the principles of stoicism provide a helpful and inspirational guide for coping with the pandemic of fear and helplessness that has arisen as a result of the world’s reaction to the viral pandemic.

I say ‘the reaction’ and not the actual pandemic itself because according to reports from various charities and helplines, it is the extreme lockdown measures that are posing a significant threat to peoples mental and physical health, as well as the virus itself. Loss of income, domestic abuse, lack of movement, excessive screen time, fear of society, and exacerbation of pre-existing mental and physical illnesses are some of the many consequences of the extreme measures imposed upon us over the last few months.

With this in mind, we should strive to exercise our autonomy and locus of control during this time by responding in ways that provide the best outcomes for ourselves and those around us. This is a far better investment of our time and energy, than mindlessly reacting to things such as the ambiguity of politicians, doom and gloom media, and people’s opinions on social media platforms.

If you know anyone feeling helpless at present, it would be a great idea to introduce them to the works of Epictetus, a Greek Stoic Philosopher who was born a slave. One of his most important principles was to distinguish what is under our control and what is not.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”

                                                                                                                                            Epictetus

The ripple effect of embracing this way of thinking can be of benefit to both our mental and physical health, which is vital during a health crisis. As an example- Our immune function is affected by our thoughts and feelings, which affect how well we cope with viruses and other pathogens. Therefore, we should not be feeling helpless at present in the knowledge that we can significantly influence our ability to cope with this virus with activities such as regular exercise, getting fresh air and sunlight, nurturing a positive mindset, and eating quality food.

Just like nature has given us an immune system that adapts by becoming stronger and more resilient when exposed to pathogens, so we should adapt to natures crises by becoming more confident, resilient and stoic.

The fundamentals of good health and a good life have remained consistent since the dawn of mankind and both are underpinned by our attitude to everyday challenges. If we can firstly use our wisdom to discern between what we can and cannot control in life, we can then focus on optimizing our responses to life’s inevitable adversities. If we can respond to adversity with a sense of gratitude, we can frame our challenges as a opportunities for growth, and take greater advantage of them. Despite the catastrophe that this pandemic is causing, it has also presented us with lots of opportunity to become better and more resilient human beings through acts of:

  • Altruism
  • Family Bonding
  • Self-Moderation
  • Self-Reflection
  • Greater Presence

It is also providing us with opportunity to appreciate, learn and engage in some of our most important and currently lacking components of good health, such as:

  • Regular Movement/Exercise
  • Preparation of food
  • De-cluttering/Minimalism
  • De-stressing
  • Being outdoors

Although it sounds very cliché, it does feel as though the world is going through a seismic shift that will irreversibly transform humanity in a short space of time. If we are to maintain authority over our health, happiness, resilience, and any sort of mutually beneficial relationship with our natural world, we should refer to the wisdom of the stoics and use this pandemic to become more resilient, creative and unified human beings, not more fearful, divided and less trusting of ourselves and each other.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will”

                                                                                                                                               Epictetus

 

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