We’re about to learn how to unlock the power of Stoicism and find ancient techniques for conquering fear and finding inner strength in any situation.

We’ll go through a quick history of the Stoics and the way they viewed the world, explore how they viewed fear and its connection to our mindset and emotions, and I’ll explain 5 Stoic techniques you can use to erode fear and replace it with a calm peace of mind.

The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome believed that the road to a good and happy life is found in living with virtue, four of which we’ll learn about in a minute, and living in accordance with nature, reason, and nature. They believed in seeking wisdom and an inner peace that come from focusing on what is within our control, accepting what is not, practicing mindfulness and self-discipline, and aligning our thoughts and actions with the nature of the universe around us.

The Stoics believed that having the wisdom to see the world clearly, the integrity to act ethically, and the discipline to avoid falling foul of our desires and impulses would naturally lead to a good life.

With their commitment to focus only on what is within their control, the Stoics detach themselves from the events that arise outside their control, which is one way the philosophy is so effective at conquering fear.

Seneca once wrote:

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”

Rule 1: Fear and Emotion

To start with, let’s have a look at how the Stoics viewed the relationship between our mindset, fear, and our emotions. To illustrate this, I’ll describe an account from around 150 AD written by Aulus Gellius, a historian who survived a perilous journey across a turbulent Ionian Sea, in which many of the passengers and crew barely came away with their lives.

To frame this story and add some context, the Stoics split our emotional response to fear into two halves. The instinctive and involuntary emotional reaction that hits us immediately when we experience a dangerous or terrifying encounter and the emotional response that follows, which we are free to decide:

  • Involuntary reaction – The Greeks called these reactions proto-passions, or propatheiai, and they were not seen as a negative but as neutral and indifferent. They are simply the body and mind’s response to a stimulus, they keep us alive and they are something we cannot avoid. Like flinching when something is thrown at us, they are brief but inevitable and natural, and they occur before our next emotional response.

  • Chosen response – the response that is decided deliberately after the involuntary reaction has stopped hijacking the system. Where many allow the involuntary response to continue to control their behavior, it is possible to learn how to regain composure and act deliberately. We’ll find out how.

Back to the story; The passenger ship, travelling from Cassiopia to Brundisium carried two travellers core to this story, the historian himself, and a Stoic philosopher and teacher. The name of this Stoic isn’t known, but based on the time and location, it could well have been Apollonius of Chalcedon, a mentor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, but we can’t know for sure.

During its voyage, the crew found themselves caught in a violent storm that threatened to capsize the ship and drown them. Gellius describes the look of horror and the screaming of men and women who believed they were about to be thrown overboard to struggle helplessly against the wind and the waves. Among those fearful faces were the Stoic teacher and his students. Gellius wrote:

“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.”

This description from Gellius illustrates that involuntary reaction we spoke about earlier; the draining of colour from our face and a change in our expression that happens when we face a potentially deadly situation.

However, in the moments after this initial reaction, there is a space in which we can interject reason. This is where we can find value in the next part of the story.

After the storm had passed, Gellius approached the Stoic teacher and asked him the reason for his fear. After all, are Stoics not supposed to be indifferent and steadfast in the face of external threat?

The Stoic 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, read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” and he gave Gellius a copy of the 5th book in the discourses of Epictetus.”

In the book Epicteus explains that when we experience an external event, such as the storm at sea, we are immediately set upon by the perceived risk and threat of danger. This risk hijacks our senses, widens our eyes, focuses our mind, and raises our heart rate. Epictetus explains that even the wise man is subject to these early reactions and is temporarily robbed of reason.

However, he goes on to explain that where the foolish man accepts this state of fear and allows themselves to be ruled by it, the wise man rejects it as soon as the hijacking passes and he regains his reason.

Epictetus writes:

“And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for phantasiai is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”

Rule 2: Wisdom

What does Epictetus mean when he writes about the wise man?

In Stoic philosophy, the wise man, also called a sage, is one who has achieved a perfect understanding of the nature of the world around them, of themselves, and of others. When they observe the world, they do not project their own biases and preconceptions but see it clearly for what it is.

The sage displays courage, wisdom, discipline, and justice, all four stoic virtues, and they live in harmony with the world around them and its people. They are no longer disturbed by external events, but they understand that they only have control over their actions and their judgments, which is where they focus their attention.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote this about the wise man:

“There are misfortunes that strike the sage, without incapacitating him, of course, such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel.”

He observed that even the sage will feel the emotion and psychological harm that comes from catastrophe and hardship as keenly as you and I. If they felt nothing, then there would be no need for courage, self-discipline, or justice.

Much of our fear comes from the outside world, and when things around us are uncertain, we can become anxious and fearful in anticipation of them. Perhaps we’re worried about how someone will respond to something we’ve done, or we’re concerned about the housing market or a looming pandemic.

“Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, 

but wish them to happen as they do happen, 

and all will be well with you.”

– Epictetus

Stoicism teaches us that a large part of wisdom, and a part that can go a long way to reducing our day-to-day suffering, is the understanding that there is almost nothing within our control. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus explains that the only things we really have control over are our thoughts and our actions; everything else we must learn to accept, and in doing so, we remove their power to disturb our peace of mind.

He said:

“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…”   

Wisdom itself, in the Stoic sense, has its foundations in the teachings of Zeno of Citium. Under the shade of a marketplace in ancient Athens, he explained that the path to a fulfilling life is found in the development of one’s character, in basing our beliefs and actions on reason, in accepting and adapting to the events around us and the externals outside our control, and instead focusing on what is within our control.

There is only one way to happiness and 

that is to cease worrying about things 

which are beyond the power or our will.

– Epictetus

Rule 3: Negative Visualisation

The ancient Stoics practiced and promoted a handful of different techniques to help them deal with the world around them and allow them to keep a steady peace of mind regardless of what was happening around them.

One of these is the practice of negative visualisation, in which you contemplate worst-case scenarios in order to develop resilience and peace of mind. Examples of this can include the loss of your possessions, the loss of this loved ones, a job, being exiled or imprisoned, or a health issue.

And while it might seem a little counterintuitive to fight fear through visualising events that often cause it, we can use it to cultivate gratitude, accept the impermanence of the world, and learn to find happiness even when things are not going our way.

If you want to try this, you can do this by following the following steps:

  1. Choose a scenario: Think of a situation, object, possession or person that you want or that you have and cherish

  2. Visualise the loss: Close your eyes (not while driving) and imagine losing the object, person, or situation. This is most effective when you visualise the loss as vividly as possible.

  3. Embrace your emotion: Our emotions aren’t things to be stamped down, so let yourself feel them. The sadness, anger, longing, joy that arise as a result.

  4. Reflect on Impermanence: Accept that everything in life is temporary. The nature of the universe is change, and we are subject to that change just as much as anything else. Remind yourself that it is natural for things to come and go.

  5. Develop gratitude: Lastly, reflect on the things that you have in your life, the people, the experiences, the things, the opportunities and the potential you have. This will help you appreciate what you have and go some way to combat the fear you might have of loss.

Repeating this kind of practice regularly will start to develop a natural shift in you, from the fear of loss or failure to a deep gratitude for what you have. It may be a long process, but in the long run, you’ll be left with a more resilient and less attached sense of wellbeing and will be better able to cope with hardship in the future.


To end, the Stoics may not have had answers to all of life’s difficult questions, but they did have some concrete ways of thinking to help cultivate a resilient personal philosophy to promote wellbeing, happiness, gratitude, reason, detachment, and strength of character. In this way, their methods help reduce our suffering, lessen our fear, and leave us better able to face hardship and better able to enjoy life.

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