Stoicism can help us lessen the burden of stress in many different areas of our lives. From finding peace in the uncertainty of the outside world, learning to accept loss and change, and developing an inner compass to help us make day-to-day decisions.

Today we’re going to look at a lesser-known area of Stoic teaching and how we can apply it to everyday life.

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

— Epictetus

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that sometimes my emotions get the better of me. We’ve all done things in anger that we regret later: shouted in traffic, argued with our partner, had a rush of excitement and impulsively bought a new TV or a bunch of new camping gear, or even quit a job or smashed something out of frustration.

Across the internet, there are circulating memes and videos of people smashing keyboards, punching holes in walls, and driving their cars into other vehicles, all in a dramatic explosion of emotion.

Our emotions are complicated things; they make us human, and the unique way in which you feel them is a large part of who you are.

However, there are issues that arise when our emotions are allowed to run our lives, dictate our behaviors, and cause us to act impulsively in ways we regret later on.

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Stoicism and Our Emotions:

To the Stoics, our emotions are important for telling us what we feel about the world. If we feel angry, sad, frustrated, or jealous, there’s a good chance there’s something in our lives that we need to reflect on and address.

In contrast to the modern meaning of the word ‘stoic’, the ancient Stoics didn’t advocate for the elimination of our emotions; they simply warned against the dangers of having our emotions rule us.

The Stoics saw emotional reactions rise up in two waves:

  1. In Wave 1, we are struck by something in the world around us; perhaps a gunshot goes off or we’re struck by turbulence on a long-haul flight. This first wave causes an instinctive response in us; we might flinch, our eyes go wide, and our heart rate quickens as we look around to take in as much information about the perceived threat as possible. In Wave 1, the Stoics believed that we have very little agency or control over how we respond, but it passes very quickly.

  2. In Wave 2, we have a choice. The initial gut reaction has passed, and this is where the Stoics believe we have control over our thoughts and actions. Here we can analyze what we have seen, decide the level of the threat, and choose how to respond. Instead of having our emotions escalate into outright panic, we can stop in the moment and deliberately decide our next course of action.

The Stoic at Sea:

The concept of our reactions coming in two waves is best illustrated by the story of the Stoic at sea. In the book The Attic Nights, written by Aulus Gellius (125–180 AD), we have the following account:

We were sailing from Cassiopa to Brundisium over the Ionian sea, violent, vast and storm-tossed. During almost the whole of the night which followed our first day a fierce side-wind blew, which had filled our ship with water. Then afterwards, while we were all still lamenting, and working hard at the pumps, day at last dawned. But there was no less danger and no slackening of the violence of the wind; on the contrary, more frequent whirlwinds, a black sky, masses of fog, and a kind of fearful cloud-forms, which they called “typhoons,” seemed to hang over and threaten us, ready to overwhelm the ship.

In our company was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic sect, whom I had known at Athens as a man of no slight importance, holding the young men who were his pupils under very good control. In the midst of the great dangers of that time and that tumult of sea and sky I looked for him, desiring to know in what state of mind he was and whether he was unterrified and courageous. And then I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others. But when the sky cleared, the sea grew calm, and the heat of danger cooled, then the Stoic was approached by a rich Greek from Asia, a man of elegant apparel, as we saw, and with an abundance of baggage and many attendants, while he himself showed signs of a luxurious person and disposition.

This man, in a bantering tone, said: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” And the philosopher, after hesitating for a moment about the propriety of answering him, said: “If in such a terrible storm I did show a little fear, you are not worthy to be told the reason for it. But, if you please, the famous Aristippus, the pupil of Socrates, shall answer for me, who on being asked on a similar occasion by a man much like you why he feared, though a philosopher, while his questioner on the contrary had no fear, replied that they had not the same motives, for his questioner need not be very anxious about the life of a worthless conceited man, but he himself feared for the life of an Aristippus.”

With these words then the Stoic rid himself of the rich Asiatic. But later, when we were approaching Brundisium and sea and sky were calm, I asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he had refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. And he quietly and courteously replied: “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about that brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather,” said he, “read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.”

An eminent philosopher of the Stoic school drew out of his satchel the fifth book of the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus, which have been edited by Arrian, and are doubtless in agreement with the writings of Zeno and Chrysippus.

In that book, which is of course written in Greek, we find this sentence: ‘The visions of the mind (phantasiai), by which the human mind at the very first sight of anything is impelled to the perception of that thing, are subject neither to his will nor to his control, but through a certain power of their own, force themselves on people’s awareness; but acts of assent (sunkatatheseis), by which these visions are recognized, are subject to the human will and under its control. So when some terrifying sound comes from the sky or from a falling building, or news of some danger is suddenly announced, or something else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise person is bound to be disturbed, and to shrink back and grow pale for a moment, not from any idea that something bad is going to happen, but because of certain swift and unconsidered movements which forestall the proper functioning of the mind and reason.

Before long, however, this wise person of ours refuses to give his assent to these terrifying visions of the mind, but rejects them, and sees nothing in them that ought to inspire him with fear. And that is the difference, they say, between the mind of a wise person and that of a fool, that the fool thinks that the things that initially strike the mind as harsh and terrible really are such, and then, as if they are truly to be feared, goes on to approve them by his own assent, whereas one who is wise, after being briefly and superficially affected in his colour and expression, ou sunkatatithetai [does not give his assent], but retains the consistency and firmness of the opinion that he has always had about mental visions of this kind, namely, that such things are in no way to be feared, but arouse terror only through false appearances and empty alarms. This is what the philosopher Epictetus thinks and says, in accordance with the doctrines of the Stoics, as I read in the book mentioned above.

These were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness than because we believe that those things are what they seem.

So then, for the great Stoic teacher Epictetus, not even the wise man is immune to the initial hijacking of the mind from fear or anger. But the wise man is one who refuses to let these things grow, they reject them and quickly regain control of their senses and reason. Unlike the fool who allows these things to take root and maintain control.

Marcus Aurelius wrote a similar lesson in his journal, Meditations:

Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)

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Stoic Tools:

So we know that letting our emotions control our actions and erode our ability to use reason and logic is not a good way to live. And we know that the Stoics believed that the wise person is one who can quickly recover from any initial reaction of fear or shock and regain their ability to think clearly.

It’s all well and good knowing this, but how can we develop this ability for ourselves?

Here are some core Stoic principles that will help us recover when we find ourselves in the throws of fear or surprise:


The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that there is very little that’s within our control, simply our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. At the beginning of the Enchiridion, he said:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

Epictetus also wrote:

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…

– Discourses 2.5.4–5

This means two things:

  1. Very little is within our control

  2. It’s our responsibility to not only clarify what we do control but also take accountability for limiting evil in our thoughts and actions.

In the context of emotion, the practice of deciding what we can and can’t control reminds us that we are ultimately the only ones who can decide and take ownership of our actions.

This mindset of ownership can quickly snap us back from an emotional reaction because we’re reminded of our accountability. We are the gatekeepers of our actions; therefore, we are the ones who will have to catch ourselves in the act when emotions begin to boil up and threaten to spill over into our behaviors.

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The second Stoic principle we’re going to look at is acceptance.

This is essentially moving our mindset from a state of “Oh no, I can’t believe this has happened”, to “Cool, this has happened. What’s my next move?”

The first example above, the “I can’t believe it” reaction, is caused by resistance. Resistance can come from our inability to accept the events of the world around us or from things happening that go against the grain of our expectations.

A little resistance is natural and falls within the Stoic’s definition of our initial response to a shock. The response in which our mind is temporarily hijacked by what’s going on around us.

The risk is that if we stay in a state of resistance, we not only lengthen the time in which we can’t think clearly, but we also delay our deliberate action, which might improve our situation.

On the topic of overcoming resistance, Epictetus said the following:

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well.

– Enchiridion, 8

Resistance is almost always felt in response to change. Whether it be a change in our environment or something we change within ourselves. To help frame the nature of change The Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, wrote the following:

“Meditate often on the swiftness with which all that exists and is coming into being is swept by us and carried away. For substance is like a river’s unending flow, its activities continually changing and causes infinitely shifting so that almost nothing at all stands still.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.23

Aurelius also wrote about the importance of how we perceive the world around us and the impact that our perceptions and judgments have on our mental health. In Meditations, he wrote the following:

“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.47

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