the stoic anxiety cure

Democracy, medicine, philosophy, science, technology, athleticism, gastronomy, art… all these are constructs that people today still strongly connect to ancient Greek culture, where many of these concepts and practices were born and developed in highly sophisticated ways. However, we don’t often relate ancient Greek philosophy with modern psychology; and many of us are not aware that Socrates‘ teachings on Stoicism actually form the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), an effective modern tool used widely today to treat psychological issues. It has proven so effective that in the UK, the National Health System offers it for free.

Visiting Athens for the first time from his home in Canada (although he is Scottish by nationality), Donald Robertson, a CBT Therapist and the author of six books, the latest titled ‘How To Think Like A Roman Emperor’, has dedicated the last 15 years of his career combining CBT with Stoicism. He is the founding member of a non-profit organization called Modern Stoicism, run by a team of philosophers, classicists, and cognitive psychotherapists.  Annually, they offer Stoic Week, a free online course every year that this year had over 8,000 participants from around the world. They also run a one-month intensive course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT).

“CBT is the dominant evidence-based form of psychotherapy today,” Roberston says. “The pioneers of this approach, Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, were both originally inspired by Stoic philosophy. Most importantly, both approaches are based on the shared premise that our ‘cognitions’ or thoughts or beliefs are caused mainly (if not entirely) by our underlying beliefs.”

“Once we can recognize that feelings involve beliefs then we can start questioning what exactly those beliefs are, evaluating whether they’re true or false, helpful or unhelpful, and confirm or disprove them. So the cognitive model of emotion opens up a whole new toolbox for therapists – but the Stoics knew this over two thousand years ago,” he says.  However, he adds, “CBT is mainly a remedy for existing problems, such as anxiety and depression, and it’s designed to be a short-term approach, while Stoicism is a whole philosophy of life. It’s permanent, and it’s designed to be preventative as well as therapeutic – so it’s much broader in scope.”

Robertson’s successful techniques of combining Stoicism and CBT have generated a huge following globally, currently at around 45,000 individuals from all backgrounds reaping rewards from his teachings. Stoicism has been adopted in the modern age by sportspeople, the military, psychologists and academics as well as ordinary people who find it can offer great improvements in their everyday life.

I ask Robertson what the appeal is. “Ordinary anxiety and depression have become a part of human life and even the more severe forms, the actual psychiatric disorders, are becoming increasingly common. Recent research shows that just over 50% of people in the USA now have a history (“lifetime prevalence”) of mental health problems. We used to call psychiatry “abnormal psychology” but psychological disorders have effectively become today’s normal psychology.”

“Nobody knows exactly why that’s happening; it’s probably due to a number of different factors, though. Many people today feel isolated and lack support from friends and family when it comes to coping with stressful situations. Unless they have access to a psychotherapist, individuals are increasingly forced to help themselves get through tough times. Stoicism offers methods of self-improvement and emotional resilience-building. However, it also provides a philosophy of life, which can give people a much-needed sense of meaning and direction.”

Donald Robertson’s top five guidelines for
using Stoicism to improve our everyday life.

1. The dichotomy of control: choices vs accidents.  The opening sentence of the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus says “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” Learn to clearly define your sphere of control: take more responsibility for the things that you do and learn to be more indifferent toward things that merely happen to you.

2. Cognitive distancing: what you see is what you get.  Perhaps the most famous Stoic quote comes a few lines later in the same book: “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things.” We should remember that it’s mainly our own value judgements that shape our emotions rather than the external events that befall us.

3. Objective representation: cut the drama.  Stoics were known for speaking concisely (Laconically) and describing things in a matter-of-fact way, without emotive rhetoric or strong value judgements – Epictetus says just stick to the facts without adding an exclamation like “Oh no!

4. Premeditation of adversity: guard yourself cooly. The Stoics were known for picturing setbacks in advance in order to rehearse coping with them, which people sometimes call “negative visualization” today – although you have to be careful to do this patiently and to view the event with indifference rather than as something genuinely negative. 

  1. The View from Above: see the forest not the tree.  Sometimes also described as a “comprehensive representation”, the Stoics encourage us to view upsetting events within the bigger picture. We’re to picture them from high above like the gods looking down from Mount Olympus, or we can go even further and imagine our current predicament as a tiny speck in relation to the whole of space and time.

     

Donal Robertson’s website:

donaldrobertson.name

Modern Stoicism

modernstoicism.com

A video of a talk Robertson gave recently explaining Stoicism briefly:

https://learn.modernstoicism.com/courses/218092/lectures/3811597

 

Greek Australian Author (Palimsest & This Is Not A Love Story) Kathryn Koromilas tried Stoic Week 2018 and writes about her experience here:

   

I completed the questionnaires for Stoic Week 2018. Life satisfaction score: low. Flourishing score: very low. Stoic attitudes and beliefs: none. Still, I was determined to start living like a Stoic.

Thus, I began. Every morning, before sunrise, I walked outside and, under the stars and sky, contemplated how small and insignificant I was. At midday, I strolled through a cemetery, imagined my imminent death and how I would soon be forgotten. At night, I reflected on my day, reminded myself that I have limited time and let that determine what I would do, say, and think the next day; if it came. Stoic practice can seem a little morbid, but you’d be surprised how all this death contemplation instantly helps clarify what I can control and what I ought to be doing.

At the end of the week, my satisfaction and flourishing scores were higher, and I had adopted some serious Stoic attitudes. But this is no miracle cure. I’d studied the Stoics at university and in my 20s, and then promptly forgot all about them years later when I really needed them.

The thing about Stoic philosophy is that you can’t do it all from an armchair. You’ve got to do some hard work. Apart from reading and thinking, you’ve got to meditate, you’ve got to write things down and memorize maxims to help when you face an unexpected crisis, and you’ve got to go out and dialogue with other human beings. And, then, you’ve got to get up and do it all again, every day, throughout the day. You’ve got to live the philosophy.

Kathryn Koromilas is a writer who leads the Stoic Writing Scene and The Stoic Writer, and Vlogged about participating in Stoic Week 2018.

** For reference, the embedded links above are:

Kathryn Koromilas – https://kathrynkoromilas.com

Stoic Writing Scene — https://www.facebook.com/groups/stoicscene

The Stoic Writer — https://thestoicwriter.com/

Vlog — https://www.youtube.com/KathrynKoromilas?sub_confirmation=1


AS FIRST PUBLISHED IN GREEKCITYTIMES.COM 

 

ancient to modern: greek plant medicine

“If only we continue to examine the practices, writings and teachings of ancient Greek physicians and pharmacists, our knowledge can leap ahead by at least 6000 years. But if we prove indifferent to the vast knowledge of the ancients, we will stay behind by 3,500 years,” says pharmacologist Dimitris Kallimanis, whose passionate life mission is to investigate, experiment with and teach about plants and the plethora of sophisticated and fascinating data related to their hundreds of species.

The expert, who sustains that what today is commonly described as “folk medicine, or natural remedies” based on plants is no less than a serious, noteworthy science, states that according to historical documents, the first person to analytically expound on the benefits and uses of herbs was the epic poet Homer (born circa 850BC, although his exact period of existence remains a mystery to scholars). Kallimanis reveals that his globally influential writings such as ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are packed with recipes and practices based on herbs: “from Homer we learned, for example, that Achilles used Achillea millefollium – a hemostatic, wound-healing and powerfully antiseptic agent that is still used today – to treat those who fought by his side, or that the family of herbs most favored by the ancient Greeks was Liliaceae.”

homer-s-odyssey-24753406
Homer’s The Odyssey

According to history, Theofrastus (372-287 BC), Aristotle’s successor at Athens’ Peripatetic School, was ancient Greece’s “father of botany.” Among a plethora of writings, he is the author of the major botanical treatises ‘Enquiry into Plants’ and ‘On the Causes of Plants’. Kallimanis and many other experts of his caliber sustain that the doctor and apothecary Dioscorides (40-90AD) was the real father of botany.

materiaHis five-volume work ‘De Materia Medica‘, was translated into Arabic and Latin in the 12th and 13th C and in German, Spanish, French, Italian and finally English after the 16th C), emerging as the basis of the world’s botanical knowledge. Indeed, the knowledge of Dioscorides, who followed a holistic and allopathic doctrine reminiscent to that practiced by Hippocrates, continues to startle academics to this day: it was he who first created the systematic categorization of some 500 plants and around 1000 of their medical uses, their varying dosages for treating ailments, and their side effects.

“However, there is a vast time gap between the botanical teachings of Homer and those of Dioscorides,” Kallimanis notes, “and the individual who played a great role in spreading knowledge on herbs within that time is somewhat unexpected; enter one of Greece’s most legendary figures in poetry, drama and creative thought – Aristophanes!” tragiccomicmaskshadriansvillamosaic
In an era when it was widely feared that Greece and its influence would be obliterated by the Peloponnesian War, the bard (444 – 385 BC) cunningly managed to share precious information with the masses. He subtly weaved substantial quarantines of knowledge through the words recited in his highly popular comedies, making one of the lines recited by the chorus in his play, ‘The Babylonians’, especially poignant, when they say that “the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all.” Kallimanis explains that through both simple terms for the common-folk to coded, more refined information directed at educated viewers, all within the same text, Aristophanes managed to distribute ancient recipes based on herbal medicine to the greater public. Kallimanis says that doing so he “ignited and bolstered the knowledge of common people and all levels of medical practitioners, even some of the information remains challenging to decode to this day.”

monks-weighing-herbs
Monks weighing herbs

Throughout the ages, the information and understanding of botanical medicine and its usage garnered from the ancient world was made accessible to the literate via Greek and translated documents that could be found mainly in monasteries, especially those on the Holy Peninsula of Mount Athos. The uneducated, however, spread knowledge verbally, with villagers across Greece developing and transferring further learning and expertise to their communities by combining proven theories and techniques and hands-on experimentation. Making the best of nature’s bounty developed from the profoundly pragmatic need to survive, as throughout the centuries villagers were left to their own devices when it came to individual and community’s healthcare. The main priority in using herbs and plants throughout rural Greece was, and remains, the need to systematically and effectively treat physical and spiritual ailments, from the common headache, melancholy and respiratory disorders to broken bones, madness and heart disease. Meanwhile on the dark side, herbs have also played a significant role in magic and superstitious rituals for breaking spells, clearing the cloying effects of the evil eye and other psychic ‘disorders’.

magic-in-ancient-greece         images-1
Magicians and faith healers carved out a niche for themselves among frightened, mainly uneducated individuals, often over-exceeding dosages and invoking divine powers or satanic entities to bring them into contact with other worlds, and to generate intensely hallucinogenic effects” Kallimanis says, adding that “their favorite plants were mainly those from the Solanacaeae (or nightshade) family, such as poisonous Belladonna and hallucinogenic Mandrake, some of which are highly toxic and can have serious or even deadly results. “Today, these magicians would be able to teach us about a whole host of other-worldly experiences, and we could call them magician-physicians – however, they didn’t have the ethics of a doctor or pharmacist, so I certainly wouldn’t call them that myself.”

* Many thanks to Dimitris Kallimanis, whose Greek-language book ‘Natural Cosmetics and Therapies from Ancient Greece and the Byzantium until the Present Day’ (Afoi Kyriakidi) on the bookstands as of November 2016.

                                                                As first published in Greece Is

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