Keep Calm and Stoic On: How to Remain Calm When Everything Seems Crazy — A Million Happy Thoughts
Originally published at www.amillionhappythoughts.com
Today is March 18, 2020. Coronavirus is spreading around the world, and with it, global panic. People are concerned about their safety, their friends and family, their income, their social life… and it seems like this is only the beginning.
With still so many unknowns, people are starving for information. How exactly does the virus spread? How long can people carry it before symptoms show? What happens if I get it? How can we flatten the curve? How can we cure it?
This is a time of uncertainty, and many people are afraid. But amongst all of the fear and anxiety, Stoic philosophy has kept me calm and grounded. Here are some tools I’ve found helpful.
Only Focus On What You Can Control –
This is one of the main principles of Stoicism. The Stoics knew that there are things in life that we can control, and there are things that we can’t. A good Stoic recognizes the difference, focuses on what he can control, and accepts the rest.
For example, I’m absolutely concerned about the spread of COVID-19. But I’ve done all I can. I’ve locked myself in my apartment and urged my friends and family to do the same. I’ve stocked my fridge. I wash my hands 27 times a day. So stressing about it isn’t going to help anyone.
Fear can be a useful tool to get people to take action. If people are still going about their regular lives, maybe some fear and anxiety could be the catalyst to get them to be more responsible. But if you personally have already prepared to the best of your ability, there is no need to stress about the things you cannot change.
Stop driving yourself crazy worrying about how terrible it would be if you got sick, how heartbroken you would be to lose your loved ones, how overcrowded our hospitals will be, how worried you are about business, etc etc etc.
Use those fears to take inventory of the things that matter to you. Then, think about the ways you can actually take action to protect those things, and try not to worry about the rest.
Focus on what you can control. And if it’s out of your hands, it should be out of your head too.
Negative Visualisation –
Stoicism has an exercise called negative visualization, which is basically exactly what it sounds like — visualizing negative things.
Instead of letting fear control you, take a moment to actually imagine all of the negative situations you are afraid of. (Important! This is not the same as spending hours worrying about your fears. This is a controlled thought experiment, with a set beginning and end. When you finish the exercise, go back to focusing only on the things within your control).
Visualize how the situation would unfold if you got sick… if you couldn’t make it to the hospital… if your business shut down… if you lost a loved one.
Sit with that for a moment or two, and then realize — you are strong enough to handle whatever life throws at you.
Negative visualization is not a practice to bum you out. It is a practice that will show you that, while whatever you are afraid of will definitely suck, it will not destroy you.
This will mentally prepare you in the very unfortunate case that your fears come true. But it should also remind you that you are strong and resilient, and can handle anything life throws at you.
Voluntary Discomfort –
This is another aptly named Stoic practice. When practicing voluntary discomfort, you… well, voluntarily put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The goal of voluntary discomfort is to recognize how little you (actually) need and to increase your appreciation for what you have.
In that way, many of us can look at our current situation through the same lens.
Voluntary discomfort, such as sleeping on the floor, skipping a meal or two, or taking a cold shower, reminds us that we are capable of much more than we think.
Seneca, one of the first Stoic philosophers, said,
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
I like to pair this with my negative visualization, and then ask myself, “Is this the condition that I feared?”
The truth is, you are extremely resilient and strong. You were made to survive. So you will.
Accept Your Mortality –
No post about Stoicism would be complete without talking about death.
Most societies view death as taboo, and thus, many people fear it. Contrarily, Stoics remind themselves often that they are mere mortals. This allows them to make peace with their mortality, so they feel less afraid.
All fear can be ultimately traced back to fear of death (of course, all rungs of the fear ladder are valid, but it’s worth noting that they all lead to the same place).
For example, I’m afraid I’ll lose my job… because I’m afraid I won’t be able to feed myself… because I’m afraid that I will die.
Or I’m afraid I’m not good enough… because I’m afraid my wife will leave me… because it is woven in my DNA that those left behind by the tribe do not survive.
If you make peace with your mortality, you will realize that it’s simply part of the human experience. And hopefully, that will quell some of your fears.
Stay Present –
Okay, I’ll admit… I can’t see who you are or what you’re doing, but if you’re reading this right now, I can pretty safely assume that you’re doing okay.
You (probably) have food in your belly, a roof over your head, and you’re relaxed enough to be reading a blog post, which means you aren’t in any imminent danger. Remember that.
At this moment, you are fine.
Mark Twain captured it well: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’”
So stay present and don’t create tragic stories in your head. Many of the worries you conjure will never happen.
If you find yourself day-nightmaring (that’s like daydreaming, but with bad things), stop. The more you can remain present, the better you will feel.
There is Always a Silver Lining –
Despite having a reputation for being pessimistic or devoid of pleasure, Stoics actually look for the best in every situation. Stoicism is about turning turmoil into fuel that can help you learn, grow, and improve.
I am a firm believer that every storm cloud has a silver lining.
For example, my physical distancing has resulted in far more emotional connection with my friends and family. I’ve had more calls and video chats in the last week than in the last few months combined. It has been so heartwarming to see how people from my community have been checking in on me and each other.
Another silver lining is the treasure trove of free time many people now have. What can you do with it? Finish those books that have been on your nightstand for months? Learn a language? Start a blog? Catch up on a Netflix series? Catch up on sleep?
There is always a bright side. Find it.
I don’t mean to belittle this situation. It is tragic and thousands of people will die. But there isn’t much good that will come from freaking out about it. So take a deep breath. Tackle the things that are in your control. And ignore the rest.
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