Stoicism and Mental Health

I’m a big fan of Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy started by Zeno of Citium over 2000 years ago.

By no stretch of the imagination am I an expert.  I’m just a guy who tries to practice its principles on as regular a basis as I can. It’s an outstanding philosophy for those who want to improve their quality of life. This article is coming from the perspective of an imperfect user of the philosophy who suffers from a mental illness.

Stoicism has enjoyed a popular resurgence over the past few years. My introduction to it was reading “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine. Ever since then, I’ve tried (with varying degrees of commitment and success) to apply it to various situations in my life. In typical Lyman fashion, I first turned it into a religion (it’s not, by the way). Back then, in my mind everything that the Stoics said was true, no questions asked. They had it all figured out over 2000 years ago, and we’ve just been too stupid to follow their lead. This is similar to what I’ve done at various times in my life with Evangelical Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, Buddhism, the Law of Attraction, Science of Mind, and the New Atheism.  I’m really lucky that I never ended up in a full on cult.

Imagine my surprise when Stoicism didn’t deliver what I wanted, just like none of the religions, philosophies, and practices I just mentioned.  I wasn’t in a constant, full on state of “Eudaimonia” within a week of this latest metaphysical distraction that I’d discovered.

My broken brain told me that this was all my fault. If I just tried hard enough, if I was just good enough, if I could just control myself, I’d become a Stoic Sage and all would be right with the world.

Thankfully, I’ve since dropped the belief that the Stoics had it all together and were right about everything.  The difference between my practice of Stoicism and those other belief systems is that even when I dropped the belief in it being an infallible panacea, I was still able to see the value in it and continue to practice.  (I have a similar affinity for Buddhism.)  But the philosophy could use some updating in light of recent discoveries and modern theories, especially in the field of mental health.

One of the ways I’ve been getting my Stoicism on is by following along with “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman over the past year. It’s been very helpful in centering me (usually) first thing in morning and has (usually) given me some strength to tackle the day ahead.

A recent entry really struck me, and I realized that one of the Stoic principles (one of its central tenants, in fact) was my bottleneck when it came to full on putting the philosophy into practice.

From December 16th:

“I tell you, you only have to learn to live like the healthy person does… living with complete confidence. What confidence? The only one worth holding, in what is trustworthy, unhindered, and can’t be taken away – your own reasoned choice.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.26.23b–24

As the Stoics say repeatedly, it’s dangerous to have faith in what you do not control. But your own reasoned choice? Well, for now that is in your control. Therefore it is one of the few things you can have confidence in. It’s the one area of health that can’t suddenly be given a terminal diagnosis (except for the one we all get the day we’re born). It’s the only one that remains pristine and never wears down – it’s only the user who quits it; never will it quit the user. In this passage, Epictetus points out that slaves and workers and philosophers alike can live this way. Socrates, Diogenes, and Cleanthes lived this way—even while they had families and while they were struggling students. And so can you.

“It’s only the user that quits – it never quits the user.”

Bam! There it was, the biggest struggle with Stoicism that I’ve had for all of these years.

My “reasoned choice” can be taken away from me – because of my mental illness.

I have Bipolar II disorder. This means that while I don’t have the psychotic highs that a person with Bipolar I experiences (although some of the highs have done some real damage), the massive, soul crushing depressions that I experience are much more of an issue.  Both of these poles have done serious harm to myself, the people I love, the people I’ve worked for/with, and even complete strangers that I’ll never see again.

I’m currently on medication and in therapy. My most recent incident was about a month ago, brought on by stress from my job (which I lost during the flare up). Medications have been appropriately adjusted.

There is something physically wrong with my brain, and there’s currently no permanent fix. Like asthma or diabetes, there are ways to control it, and even with the recent relapse, I’m slowly making progress toward living a better life.

Stoicism has been a part of making that life better. Many modern therapies (CBT and REBT, for instance) borrow heavily from Stoic thought. As a matter of fact, another of the central ideas in Stoicism is summed up fairly well in the Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous:

God,

Grant me the Serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

The Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Compare this to the first few lines of the Handbook of Epictetus (the Enchiridion):

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Awesome! Sounds pretty simple to me.

“Oh well, I can’t control that.” That’s the Stoic response to events outside of us.

“Now that I can control!” That’s the Stoic response to events within us (our thoughts.)

Here’s the problem: people with mental illness often can’t control their thoughts. Never mind those of us with Bipolar or Major Depressive Disorder; I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be for someone with Schizophrenia or similar afflictions.

So what’s the solution?

We work with what we have (pretty Stoic thought there), accept what we have to might as well accept (we don’t “have to” do anything), and recognize that the very thing the Stoics say we have control over and can never lose… is possible for us to lose.

It’s important to recognize that there are different kind of thoughts – automatic thoughts that we don’t control, and conscious thoughts that we do. Sometimes, when I’m in the throes of my illness, the automatic thoughts take over completely – and I’m screwed.

We can do our best to not let it get to that point. Medication helps. Physical action helps. Different types of meditation help. Writing helps. Talking about it with someone who understands helps.

That last one is the hardest for me personally. I’m still working on the idea that just keeping silent about what’s going on in my head (la la la la la im fine im fine just think positive thoughts and all will be well) will make it go away. And if (when) it doesn’t go away, the shame that comes from “I couldn’t do it myself” keeps my mouth shut.

These things keep it from going away. It causes the thoughts to grow into monsters that will eat me alive.

I suppose that I’m writing this for both myself and others like me (you are out there, right?).  For myself because it has helped me clarify my own ideas and commitments, and for those of us who feel like we can’t practice Stoicism, those of us who feel like it has nothing to offer those of us who can’t “Just Do It” because our Inner Citadel is under such brutal attack that it sometimes is overrun by the barbarians.

Yes, we may lose the battle sometimes, but as long as we’re above ground, there’s still a chance to win the war. Many of us have lost that war permanently – let’s pay our respects by continuing to fight, and use whatever tools work, Stoic or not.