Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Controlling Emotions
The Stoics developed many strategies for controlling unhealthy and excessive desires and emotions. For example, a whole text by Seneca survives on Stoic remedies for anger. We’ve already looked at many aspects of Stoic “therapy of the passions”. However, in this section we’ll look in more detail at one of the most famous Stoic psychological exercises: the premeditation of future “evils” or adversities (praemeditatio futurorum malorum).
There are many references in the surviving Stoic literature to the strategy of anticipating future catastrophes and preparing to face them in advance by patiently imagining them, as if they were happening already. Typical examples include bereavement, poverty, exile, illness, and, perhaps most importantly of all for the Stoics, one’s own death.
By repeatedly picturing future “catastrophes” as if they were already happening, the Stoic could not only reduce anxiety about them, in a similar way to how 'exposure therapy' in CBT today can reduce anxiety attached to specific situation, but also rehearse judging them in accord with his ethical principles, as being “indifferent” with regard to his ultimate wellbeing and fulfilment. Picturing even their own death in this way, repeatedly, day after day, allowed the Stoics to develop a habitual “philosophical attitude” in the face of adversity, when it happens for real. We know from modern research that the best way to overcome anxiety is to actually “expose” yourself to the feared situation in reality, repeatedly and for sufficiently prolonged periods. However, we also know that simply picturing the same event in the mind, repeatedly and for long enough, often works almost as well.
To begin with, you should not do this with anything that seems like it might lead you to “bite off more than you can chew”. Don’t imagine things that are deeply personal or traumatic until you’re definitely ready to do so without feeling overwhelmed. Begin by working on small things that upset you. Don’t let yourself worry about them, just try to picture the worst-case scenario patiently, and wait for your emotions to abate naturally. Remind yourself of the Stoic principles you’ve learned. In particular, the maxim that people are upset not by external events but by their own judgements about them, particularly value-judgements that place too much importance on things that are not under your direct control. Try to spend at least 20-30 minutes doing this each day. You might find it helpful to keep a record of your experiences as follows:
1. Situation. What is the upsetting situation that you’re imagining?
2. Emotions. How does it make you feel when you picture it as if it’s happening right now? How strong is the feeling (0-100%)?
3. Duration. How long (in minutes) did you manage to “sit with it” and patiently expose yourself to the event in your imagination?
4. Consequence. How strong was the upsetting feeling at the end (0-100%)? What else did you feel or experience by the end?
5. Analysis. Has your perspective changed on the upsetting event? Is it really as “awful” as you imagined? How could you potentially cope if it did happen? What’s under your control in this situation and what isn’t?
If your anxiety level hasn’t reduced to at least half its peak level then you might need to pick an easier subject, or else spend more time on things to benefit. Use the natural “wearing off” of upsetting feelings as an opportunity to re-evaluate the situation in a more rational and detached manner, i.e., from a more “philosophical” perspective. What do you think a Stoic like Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius would make of the same situation? How might you view it differently if you had mastered the “virtues” of practical wisdom, moral justice, courage and self-control? Take your time to note down what you can potentially learn from this experience.