How Stoicism Helped me Overcome Depression
by Andrew Overby
We all start out wanting to change the world. Depressives hold onto this impulse longer than most, I think, and thus when the inevitable realization comes that we cannot, it hits home all the harder.
The realization that we are but players on the world stage and not its prime architect is one of those momentous but possibly subtle shifts in conscious awareness that separates some aspects of youth from adulthood, such an effect does it have. This is maybe one of the first intellectual brushes with human limitations.
Those prone to perfectionism and to dreaming big can be strongly affected. To simultaneously be a daylong dreamer and to know that one’s dreams of changing the world—by leveraging the force of one’s perceived destiny or willpower—are extremely unlikely to be borne out is to invite depressive thinking for a visit.
To some degree, this is my story. At 24, my adult life so far has consisted in some measure of making the circuit around the pull of this immense truth. I really have yet to reconcile the real world with the one I envision and the place in it I would wish for myself.
More than most, depressives would benefit from the words of prominent Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or like the former slave Epictetus. With his dichotomy of control in mind, we can keep before our mind’s eye that only some certain things are under our power to influence and others are beyond our ability to control. (In fact, I think the trichotomy of control introduced by William B. Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life is even better, with the addition of a third category in the middle for things we have some amount of control over). We must evaluate what control we have and learn to take comfort in letting go of that which we can’t influence.
This is exactly somewhere Stoic thinking can come in: Like those involved in the now-famous Quantified Self movement and who daily measure galvanic skin response, sleep patterns, diet, steps walked per day, among many possible metrics to score their own physical state, those able to with depressive tendencies or other negatively affecting mental health conditions need to monitor themselves.
This type of acknowledgement of what is ours to hold in our sovereign hands in contrast to those many things we cannot control at all seems to me like one area of Stoic practice that is rich with lessons for depressives—or anyone at all wanting to experience a bit more tranquility in daily life.
I have always read widely and in high school, having a passing familiarity with the well-known proper nouns of Western culture, I knew vaguely who the Stoics were. (I was impressionably taken with the fact that many prominent individuals had adopted at least parts of Stoicism for themselves—or at least had the desire to be seen in that light). I remember visiting the Clinton Library in Arkansas and hearing of the former president’s reverence for Marcus Aurelius’Meditations. It has sat in the back of my mind since those years.
More recently, I began exploring the Stoics’ wisdom in a more significant way, seeking to understand their beliefs and see what could be applied to my own life, which has included depression and the resulting missed opportunities and long-term underperformance that come with it. I had heard of comparisons with Buddhism and was eager to know more. I came across several books written for a general audience. Once I started reading, I was intrigued.
Here was a philosophy that tried to rationalize life, that did not seek to eliminate emotion or attachment but to instill a deep-seated appreciation for these by cultivating a kind of detached regard. It disregarded mass consumerism and the mad acquisition of new products simply to satisfy an urge for perpetual novelty. It has high regard for the entire human community, all of whose members makes up the cosmopolis to which the Stoics belong.
These philosophers emphasize duty and virtue, teaching practitioners to put themselves to their best use as rationally capable human beings as well as to seek excellence in the situations in life they find themselves in, whatever they might be—whether in, say, excelling in ruling an empire or excelling in teaching a classroom full of students. They urge equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. For my personality type and in light of my life experiences, Stoic thinking seems rather natural.
Turning Depression Into An Asset
If the test of Stoic thinking and ethics is how they are put into practice, then let me elaborate on a few practices that might prove valuable to others.
Actually, I think many who have dealt with depression or other mental health concerns will find themselves quite receptive to the contents of Stoicism. For them, and for anyone at all who’s interested in delving into fundamental insights into human psychology, it’s just a matter of hearing about the Stoics in an age that has largely relegated them to the sidelines.
Depressed people are rather self-aware; in fact, they are too self-aware, and too negatively so, often deriding themselves for small infractions of their own idealized standards, putting themselves down for not being perfect even in a world they recognize as being full of imperfections and human capital squandered.
Part of depression is fixating on failures in the past, ruminating continually on past events or circumstances and even drawing a kind of negative confidence from them. This type of thinking is antithetical to good outcomes at the present time, at least the vast majority of the time. It causes failure in the present, building a feedback loop whose hunger cannot be easily filled. One failure builds atop another, and now another.
Stoic thinking can help by teaching willing students how to separate past from present in the mind. To return to Epictetus’dichotomy of control, the past is something over which we have no control. We must learn how to mindfully control how we peer backward into the past and how to only do on our own terms when it may prove useful.
Depressives may also gain comfort by appreciating the Stoic injunction to treat adversity as a training ground for mental capacity and for resilience—generally speaking, for life. Focusing on what our response can be instead of what is happening to us, what is being done to us, what we cannot influence or have control over is the step needing to be taken by all individuals, depressed or otherwise, who wish to maintain a healthier balance in their daily living.
Enabled by Stoic habits, a depressive can turn this overly critical self-awareness into a strength. Having a clear-eyed vision of things as they really are (without losing tranquility) is quite an asset. Seeing reality rather than confirming only what we wish to see is a skill others would have to acquire. What’s known as “depressive realism”is a rough-cut diamond waiting to be fashioned into the glowing jewel that is a well-developed sense of resilience, one that can more easily withstand the slings and arrows of adverse circumstances.
Stoic empowerment extends to include both professional and personal concerns. It seems to me those with depression are less likely to be hypocritical than those who are not nor have been, as well as perhaps being less likely to tell lies. This is purely a subjective opinion, but being compelled to lay bare the emotional foundations of one’s mental state is going to produce more empathy, and be far less conducive to deceit or deception. In short, a depressed person is more likely to express honesty and empathy.
Empathy, for Stoics, is fundamental. With exercises like Hierocles’ Circle, expanding the realm of one’s concern outward from oneself to family, city, country, and then the world, and a commitment to acting in the public interest or taking part in public affairs, Stoicism prove itself like depression in the sense that integral to its patterns is a highly developed sense of empathy.
If empathy can be boiled down to a reasonable appreciation for the plight of another that goes deeper than surface-level social platitudes, then those with depression will naturally prove themselves capable in this manner. For others, the best way for a person to develop this empathetic skill-set might be with Stoic exercises. When it comes to emotional intelligence and empathizing, I think depressive actually have something others can learn from. Where lessons await, however, is in empathizing without losing a level head, using emotion as a vital component of reason without ever subverting it.
This relates not to changing external events or happenings, but our responses to them. Changing the state of mind a person is in can be difficult (when it can be done), but realizing that it is only a representation of something rather than the thing itself can be a relief. Remembering that reactions differ from actual reality is vital.
Good habits can be a great help in maintaining mental health. Adapting to follow the best habits possible right now is an excellent step, allowing time for small steps to build up. Adaptation is powerful, and depressives are better suited for adapting than we often believe ourselves to be.
When depressing or frustrating thoughts come to mind, the thought substitution technique might work. This means turning an unhelpful thought into one more helpful at the time. A thought about a past event or a memory about an old acquaintance that proves troubling can be turned to something more constructive with mental discipline and practice. Perhaps an unhelpful urge to focus on something negative can be made into a trigger for a taking a positive action. Many have used memories like childhood bullying or some kind of past anguish to spur themselves onward to achieve goals as adults; this seems like a potentially helpful route for those seeking to align depressing history with Stoic virtue.
A very valuable Stoic practice is that of negative visualization. This exercise is about visualizing all the bad things that could happen, all the things that could go wrong, every wound that might be reopened, every point of vulnerability, every secret exposed to sunlight, every mistake turned into a major faux pas. For a depressed person, this might feel more like putting names to faces seen before, I think, than an entirely new experience. I imagine many others would find this exercise somewhat morbid, but I suspect many depressives would appreciate it.
The second component I would add to the negative visualization exercise is its counterpoint: gratitude. Imagine feeling grateful everyday. This is an excellent habit. Before sleeping, think about the day’s events, or something more permanent. Consider those who have prepared the way and laid the groundwork. This exercise is very useful.
Humility is also a valuable aspect of Stoic thinking. Being plain in appearance or diet is a mark of humility. Depressed people often feel they have been humbled, but there is value in translating that into a general, pervasive sense of modesty, when possible.
Remembering one’s own smallness in the larger context of the universe and all living things within it can be useful for alleviating some anxiety by providing some of the mental distancing from an immediate reaction or stressful situation that Stoic habits are meant to instill.
The final exercise I would offer is the headline rule: This practice is imagining one’s actions being displayed in the headline of a newspaper—presumably, one that everyone reads. It is simple, and easy to conceptualize. This is like the spotlight effect—except pretend that everyone truly is going to be watching and discussing. If something would not look good on the front page of a newspaper, it might not be a virtuous action.
What all of the above ultimately come down to is making active choices. At best, passivity is neutral—if it does not actually worsen or prolong matters. This is not always possible, yet engaging in some series of actions—really, making a series of choices—is all a person can reasonably try to hold himself or herself responsible for. If there is anything that Stoics can teach those with mental health concerns, it is that employing reason can lift some of the burden.
References & Recommendations:
Hadas, M., The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters. W.W. Norton & Company, 1968.
Evans, Jules. Philosophy For Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. New World Library, 2012.
Irvine, William B., A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Ussher, Patrick. (eds.), Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Volume One. 2014
Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.