How to Use Stoicism to Combat Anxiety and Depression

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

At its core, Stoicism is the idea that we control our mind. For the Stoics, achieving tranquility wasn’t about changing what was going on in our external world, but rather, changing our internal world. Feelings such as depression and anxiety, are to a large extent determined by our underlying philosophy.

When we experience intense feelings of depression and anxiety, we assume that an event caused our sense of depression and anxiety. But events themselves don’t cause feelings of depression and anxiety, it is our underlying beliefs about the event that controls our emotions. By changing our underlying beliefs, we can change how we feel.

How We Make Ourselves Anxious and Depressed

Psychologist and modern Stoic Albert Ellis identified three basic demands that make us miserable. They are:

  1. I must do everything perfectly
  2. Others must treat me well
  3. Life must be easy and problem-free

When we make demands of ourselves, other people, or life itself, we cause ourselves to be depressed and anxious. We turn our preferences into needs, and demand that they be satisfied!

For example, if I told myself while writing this blog post: “I must write the perfect guide on how to use Stoicism to overcome depression and anxiety.” How do you think I would feel? Probably very anxious. I would be better off if I changed my underlying philosophy and told myself: “I will put forth a solid effort. If other people don’t like my blog post, then too bad! I can use the feedback to write a better post next time.” By transforming my demands into mere desires, I will have prevented myself from becoming anxious and more likely to achieve my stated goal.

Demands on Self

When we place impossible demands on ourselves, we get depressed and anxious as a result. Demands on ourselves are often inflexible, unrealistic, and overly-dependent upon what other people think of us.

For example, you might say to yourself: “I must do everything perfectly. If I fail to do things perfectly, then I am a failure.” Or you might say, “I must have approval from others. I must not act in a way that others will disapprove of.” If you hold these beliefs, you will become depressed and anxious when your demands are not met. You will inevitably fall short of perfection.

You can change your underlying philosophy by disputing the demands that you put on yourself and confronting your inflexible beliefs. For example, ask yourself, “Why must I do everything perfectly? Where is it written that I must have others’ approval?”

Combat your perfectionism by telling yourself instead: “I would prefer that I do everything well, but it isn’t realistic for me to put this irrational demand on myself. I will stop making myself depressed and anxious with my irrational demands.”

Attack your demands for approval from others by telling yourself: “I desire for others’ approval of all that I do. But I can stand it, and live a good life, even if others do not approve of all of my actions. I will stop making myself miserable, anxious, and depressed due to my obsession with others’ opinions of me.”

Demands on Others

When we make demands of others, we place ourselves at the center of the universe and insist that others act in accordance with our will. Placing demands on others may lead to rage, anger, impatience, bitterness, and resentment.

For example, you might demand that other people treat you fairly. You may hold the belief: “Other people must treat me fairly, act competently, and not criticize me, otherwise, they are no good human beings and deserve to be punished.”

You can dispute your god-like demand by telling yourself: “I wish that people would act fairly, especially towards me! But if they don’t, then too bad! I do not need to take the criticism of others so seriously. I will stop infuriating myself by demanding that others always act favorably towards me.”

Accepting that others act badly does not mean that you condone their behavior. It only means that you stop demanding that people act like angels, especially towards you.

Demands on Life

When we demand that life should be easy, problem free, or different from what it is, we take our desire for a permanent vacation and make it into a need. In the process, we make ourselves miserable. Demanding an easy, problem-free life is a recipe for depression, anxiety, and self-pity.

For example, we may tell ourselves: “Life shouldn’t be this hard. Life should be easy and problem-free. I can’t stand life the way it is. The government, my job, my boss, my spouse, my child, or my parents should change to make things easier for me.”

We can combat our sense of injustice with life by telling ourselves instead: “I prefer that life were different and will try to change what is within my control, but I won’t make myself miserable by demanding that life conforms to my personal wishes. I have limited control over my job, my boss, my spouse, my child, my parents, and the government. I will try to change what is within my control and let go of the rest. Even though life is unfair and difficult, I can stand it and embrace happiness when it does come my way. I will refuse to make myself miserable by demanding that life always be easy and problem-free.”

Now that you have an idea of how to argue against your demanding beliefs, examine your feelings of depression and anxiety, and try to uncover the demands that you are making.

If you take a close look, you will find that your feelings of depression and anxiety stem from your own demands. By changing your demands to preferences, you can change your feelings of depression and anxiety. You can change depression into mere dissatisfaction, and anxiety into simple concern.

Unconditional Acceptance of Self, Others, and Life

The second part of getting rid of your depression and anxiety involves unconditionally accepting yourself, others, and life in general. Why would you want to do this? Because you and everyone else on this planet are fallible, flawed human beings! You will make mistakes, others will treat you badly, and life will be difficult. But that is hardly a reason to despair. Accepting yourself, others, and life for what it is, doesn’t mean that you desire to be treated badly. It merely requires that you stop overgeneralizing about the negative aspects of yourself, others, and life.

Unconditional Self-Acceptance

When we overgeneralize about our flaws, we make ourselves depressed and anxious in the process. Practice accepting yourself as a worthwhile human being despite your flaws. You are a flawed human being who makes mistakes, but that this hardly makes you inhuman.

For example, suppose that you make a mistake or treat someone badly. You could make yourself depressed and anxious by holding onto the belief, “I am a terrible human being for acting in such a way.”

Instead of berating yourself for your mistake, you could accept your human fallibility, telling yourself: “I am a fallible human being who makes mistakes. Just because I acted badly in the past does not make me a terrible, awful person. I can strive to do better in the future.”

Unconditional Other-Acceptance

When other people fail to treat us with respect, do not enjoy our company, or simply ignore us, this can make us depressed or anxious. In such circumstances, you may tell yourself, “I can’t stand it when others treat me unfairly!”

The truth is, you can stand it, and even live a happy life in spite of the fact that others behave badly towards you from time-to-time. Try accepting others as worthwhile human beings despite the fact that they behave badly on occasion. Tell yourself: “Other people will treat me badly from time-to-time, but that does not make them inhuman. In fact, there are times when I have treated others badly, yet that hardly makes me inhuman. I can accept other people without condoning their bad behavior. I will accept the sinner but hate the sin.”

Unconditional Life-Acceptance

Life doesn’t always work out the way that we had planned. But this doesn’t mean that life is not worth living! We can still enjoy life despite the fact that life has not conformed to our desires. There is no reason, after all, that the universe should cater to our desires.

If you find yourself demanding that life be different from what it is, try telling yourself: “There is no reason why life must go only the way I desire it to go. I will work to change what I can, but I will not make myself depressed and anxious when life is difficult. I will stop demanding that the universe caters to my desires. Even when life feels unbearable, I can stand it. I can continue working towards my goals no matter how difficult life is.”

Practicing Stoicism

So far, you have learned about the tools that you will need to dispute your demands, and to accept that your desires are not the same as needs.

Begin the practice of changing your beliefs by acknowledging that which is beyond your control. Is it worth feeling depressed and anxious about something which cannot be changed? Work instead to change that which is within your control, especially your demanding beliefs. Preferences are great but do not revert to your inner toddler, demanding that you must have everything you desire. You will only make yourself depressed and anxious in the process.

Shame-Attacking Exercises

Psychologist, Albert Ellis suggested that people who are depressed and anxious are that way, in part, because they take themselves too seriously. We feel shame when we feel as if we acted stupidly, and we irrationally evaluate our entire personhood as a result. Ellis had his clients perform “shame-attacking” exercises to help them overcome irrational feelings of shame. Shame-attacking exercises can help you stop taking yourself too seriously.

The exercises may sound ridiculous, but that is partly because they are! Rather than over-intellectualizing your depression and anxiety, you can start doing something practical.

Here are a few exercises you can try:

  • Ask someone you don’t know: “Excuse me, but I just got out of the mental hospital. Can you tell me what year it is?”
  • Tie a long red ribbon around a banana and “walk” it down a busy street.
  • Ride a crowded elevator standing backward (facing the rear).
  • Yell out five successive stops on the bus.
  • Wear a ridiculous outfit
  • Grow unusual facial hair

Negative Visualizations

The Stoic philosophers advised us to regularly visualize losing something that is precious to us. For example, they recommended imagining losing your children or spouse. Doing this, they claimed, would help you to feel more grateful for the things that you have.

Practice imagining that you have lost something that is precious to you. It could be your car, your house, or some other prized possession. So often, we take for granted the things that make our lives great. We forget the things that have made human existence so much more pleasant than it may have been in past generations. For instance, think of how running water, universal sanitation, flush toilets, or grocery stores have changed our lives.

Negative visualizations can help you to remember that life, while unpleasant at times, is never as horrible as you might sometimes imagine it to be.

Stoic Self-help Form

I created examples below that will help your identify unhelpful emotions and work to change your unhelpful beliefs that are driving your anxiety or depression.

Describe the Problem

What are you sad, angry, anxious or upset about?

Examples:

  1. I feel anxious at work.
  2. I am angry because someone treated me unfairly.
  3. Life is so difficult, it makes me miserable and I can’t stand it!
  4. I’m depressed because I can’t get what I want.

Identify Your Unhelpful Beliefs

What are your unhelpful, irrational beliefs in this situation?

Examples:

  1. I must perform well and gain the approval of others or else I am a worthless person!
  2. Other people must treat me fairly or else they are horrible people!
  3. Life must go the way I want it to or else the world is a rotten place and life is not worth living.

Dispute Your Unhelpful Beliefs

Ask Questions that Challenge Your Unhelpful Beliefs

Examples:

  1. Where is it written that I must perform well?
  2. What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t get what I want?
  3. Just because I prefer to be treated fairly, does that mean I must be treated fairly?
  4. Just because I don’t like something, does that mean it is horrible and awful?

Identify Your New Healthy Emotions

What are your new health emotions?

Now that you have identified and challenged your unhelpful beliefs, identify your new healthy emotions.

Example:

  1. Sadness, but not despair
  2. Concern, but not anxiety
  3. Annoyance, but not anger
  4. Disappointment, but not depression
  5. Regret, but despondency
  6. Frustration, but not furry

Conclusion

The Stoics believed that we can achieve a tranquility in this life by mastering our emotions, no matter what life throws at us. For the Stoics, achieving tranquility wasn’t about what was going on in your external world, but rather, how well you have mastered your emotions. If you desire to overcome your depression and anxiety, start attacking your demands on a regular basis. Write down your demands and dispute them. The more you practice, the easier it will become.

18 thoughts on “How to Use Stoicism to Combat Anxiety and Depression

      1. I’m working on a post about it, but basically, REBT assumes that life will go better for you if you adhere to its principles. But REBT may not be in alignment with your values. Specifically, REBT values long-term hedonism, rational thinking over romantic thinking, and preferences over demands. It is not clear to me that this type of thinking is a desirable way to live for everyone, but is more like choosing a religion to follow than a “therapy”.

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  1. I think with some more reading, you would have a better understanding of unconditional acceptance, as opposed to those conditions (Specifically, REBT values long-term hedonism, rational thinking over romantic thinking, and preferences over demands. It is not clear to me that this type of thinking is a desirable way to live for everyone) that you list. Stubbornly refusing to make myself overly upset, for example, is a long way from hedonism,
    REBT is a psychotherapy which is not a religion, but it does have therapeutic goals, to help those in discomfort. They are:

    “Let us look at the main psychotherapeutic goals. On the basis of
    twenty years of clinical experience, and in basic agreement with most
    of my professional colleagues (such as Brasten, 1961; Dreikurs, 1955;
    Fromm, 1955; Goldstein 1954; Maslow, 1954, Rogers, 1957; and Thorne,
    1961), I would say that the psychotherapist tries to help his patients
    to be minimally anxious and hostile; and to this end, he tries to help
    them to acquire the following kind of personality traits:

    Self-interest. The emotionally healthy individual should primarily
    be true to himself and not masochistically sacrifice himself for
    others. His kindness and consideration for others should be derived
    from the idea that he himself wants to enjoy freedom from unnecessary
    pain and restriction, and that he is only likely to do so by helping
    create a world in which the rights of others, as well as his own, are
    not needlessly curtailed.

    Self-direction. He should assume responsibility for his own life,
    be able independently to work out his own problems, and while at times
    wanting or preferring the cooperation and help of others, not need
    their support for his effectiveness and well-being.
    Tolerance. He should fully give other human beings the right to be
    wrong; and while disliking or abhorring some of their behavior, still
    not blame them, as persons, for performing this dislikeable behavior.
    He should accept the fact that all humans are remarkably fallible,
    never unrealistically expect them to be perfect, and refrain from
    despising or punishing them when they make inevitable mistakes and
    errors.

    Acceptance of uncertainty. The emotionally mature individual should
    completely accept the fact that we live in a world of probability and
    chance, where there are not, nor probably ever will be, any absolute
    certainties, and should realize that it is not at all horrible, indeed—
    such a probabilistic, uncertain world is most conducive to free
    thought.

    Flexibility. He should remain intellectually flexible, be open to
    change at all times, andunbigotedlyview the infinitely varied
    people, ideas, and things in the world around him.
    Scientific thinking. He should be objective, rational and
    scientific; and be able to apply the laws of logic and of scientific
    method not only to external people and events, but to himself and his
    interpersonal relationships.

    Commitment. He should be vitally absorbed in something outside of
    himself, whether it be people, things, or ideas; and should preferably
    have at least one major creative interest, as well as some outstanding
    human involvement, which is highly important to him, and around which
    he structures a good part of his life.

    Risk-taking. The emotionally sound person should be able to take
    risks, to ask himself what he really would like to do in life, and
    then to try to do this, even though he has to risk defeat or failure.
    He should be adventurous (though not necessarily foolhardy); be
    willing to try almost anything once, just to see how he likes it; and
    look forward to some breaks in his usual life routines.

    Self-acceptance. He should normally be glad to be alive, and to
    like himself just because he is alive, because he exists, and because
    he (as a living being) invariably has some power to enjoy himself, to
    create happiness and joy. He should not equate his worth or value to
    himself on his extrinsic achievements, or on what others think of him,
    but on his personal existence; on his ability to think, feel, and act,
    and thereby to make some kind of an interesting, absorbed life for
    himself.” – Ellis (http://theartof.jeraldblackstock.ca/the-case-against-religion/)

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    1. I am struggling to see how this is any different from a religion. REBT is based on the underlying values which you quote below. Values are inherently personal and dare I say even religious, and faith based. Not there is anything wrong with that. But how does one arrive at the premises? Through a system of shared values. If you want to call that “scientific” so be it. To me these shared values are something a person must accept, they are values to live by. They cannot be deduced from examine the world as science does. The values Ellis espouses are just that values. One person might choose to live by Moses’ value system, Jesus’, Mohamed’s, Buddha’s, Ellis or Zoroaster. It is important to choose one that suites you and for me it is important to acknowledge that you are choosing a religion. It seems to me that Albert Ellis tried to say that his therapy was not a value system, but was a scientific way of approaching human life. This seems obviously not so to me.

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