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 

 

why ikaria feels so good

Ikariotes – the locals of Ikaria – have always captured the imagination of the rest of the Greek population because of their ‘eccentricity’. They are famous for having their very own sense of time and space, and for their freedom-loving, convivial spirit.

An independent state for several months after releasing itself from the Ottoman grip in 1912 (with its own cobalt blue flag stamped with a thick white cross – still seen in numerous homes around the island today), Ikaria was baptized ‘the red rock’ when it became home to some 13,000 communist exiles during the Greek Civil War of 1946-49. These and other factors have led the idiosyncratic Cycladic island to develop a character that differentiates it from its neighbours on either side, Samos and Mykonos – and indeed every other Greek island.

umbrellas
Sunset at Armenistis beach

Anarchically lush, hearteningly unpretentious, and only demanding that you let go of your set expectations in order to enter its mesmeric and intrinsic flow, the island started attracting ‘alternative’ travelers in the 80s, such as bohemians and artists, who rejected the touristic paradigm emerging in Greece at the time, and who preferred to pitch tents on the beach and integrate with local life. In 2012, however, came a great shift.

Dan Buettner wrote The Island Where People Forget to Die’ in the New York Times, sharing his groundbreaking Blue Zones research with the world. Since then, people have been flocking to Ikaria from every corner of the earth, thirsty to drink from the island’s legendary fountain of youth.

The locals – among whom you will find an impressive number of rosy-cheeked centenarians – haven’t got a clue what all the fuss is about, and frankly have grown a little weary of all the media and tourist attention. They are known for what visitors describe as a ‘Zen-like spirit’; they aspire to measured, Christian Orthodox ideals that keep them living in the present, and maintain an effusive attitude (that also prizes equality between the sexes). Ikariotes are also praised for their highly self-sufficient lifestyle, vibrant social life, healthy diet, and demanding physical routine of tending to land and livestock; and they are happy to stay exactly as they are.

1. THE CELEBRATION

Panygiri of Aghios Giannis in Christos, Raches. Photo by Constantine Malpas.

If you’ve ever heard of Ikaria, then you must know the two things it’s most famous for: the longevity of its inhabitants, as announced to the world in 2012 by Blue Zones research, and its Panigyria, the all-day/all-night festivals celebrating local patron saints which attract hundreds to thousands of revelers from near and far. Wine flows free, boiled or baked goat is chomped on by the kilo, and dancers from all around the island – and even the world – link arms to dance the trance-like Ikariotikos for hours on end. Locals do love to party, but the chief objective of these events is to use the proceeds to build, renovate and mend roads, buildings, churches and schools. They take place throughout the year, but almost daily from May to October.

2. THE SPIRIT OF THE PEOPLE

nas1
French tourists possessed by the local love of music. Photo by A. Amvrazi

One of the most appealing and special aspects of the Ikaria experience is getting to know its unique people. The islanders are often described as highly self-sufficient and physically disciplined, as they dedicate most of their day to tending their land and animals. Yet, at the same time they are bon viveurs who know how to live life to the full and completely in the present.

Although philosophically minded, creatively inclined (there is an especially resilient passion for music across the island) and definitely able to take a joke, they’re essentially simple people who are satisfied with the little they’ve got – a fruit and vegetable garden round the back of the house, a community bound by loyalty, individual independence, the ability to follow a daily rhythm that suits their reality, and long-honored equality between the sexes (a rare find in provincial Greece). They are not thirsty for money or fame, and despite being warm and welcoming to visitors, they feel no need to turn their island into a polished tourist destination that changes to accommodate other’s needs. And ironically, this characteristic only serves to make them more alluring.

3. THE FOOD AND WINE

Photo by Constantine Malpas

Authentic, pure, organic, seasonal and straight from the garden is how Ikarian cuisine can best be defined, as throughout the island locals grow fresh produce in great abundance, while the wild “rasko” goats roam free, feeding on wild greens. Goat meat, milk and cheese are all staple foods, while in the coastal areas such as Armenistis, Nas and Evdilos you can stop for a bite of seafood with a view. The capital, Aghios Kirykos, and the Fournoi islands across from it are best for lobster. There are three wineries producing quality, award-winning wines on the island.

All located in very scenic spots, they offer a great excuse for a relaxed wine-tasting tour, although at most places you stop to eat, and particularly at local festivals, you will most probably be sampling the potent (15 percent alcohol content) red hima (non-bottled, locally produced) wine. In recent years a handful of restaurants on Ikaria have started serving more modern and creative dishes, often with exciting results, but overall the food is traditional and simple.

Local specialties include soufiko, the pan-fried Ikarian rendition of briam (Greek ratatouille); spongy, white kathoura goat cheese and giant zucchini. Wild herbs are added to all dishes and brewed as tea (water mint or fliskouni being a popular choice), lashings of olive oil on everything and common use of excellent, medicinal honey (white heather, pine tree, thyme, strawberry tree).

4. THE NATURAL VARIETY AND ABUNDANCE
Mostly blanketed in thick, verdant foliage throughout the year, predominately mountainous Ikaria is a delight to explore on foot or by car. Mapped walks in Natura 2000 areas such as the 25km Ikaria on Foot circuit trail immerse you in the beauty of gorges such as Halaris, with emerald-green lakes, cool steams, lush forests, waterfalls and paved donkey paths.

There are also several organized botanical tours (Ikaria has 1,100 endemic plant species) and food-foraging walks along the island’s paths, led by experienced local guides. Ikaria has also been named an important bird area: keen birdwatchers can enjoy spotting the peregrine falcon, Bonelli’s eagle and, closer to the coast, the sea raven, among other species. The rare lizard species Lacerta oertzeni and Stellagama stellio (or korkofylas to the locals) can also be found here. For aquatic pleasures, beaches like Nas, Faros, Seychelles and Armenistis are the most popular due to their invigorating crystal waters and aesthetic allure.

5. THE CURATIVE SPRINGS

Ikaria’s eight hot springs, which are said to be among the most radioactive in the world (but all very safe), have since ancient times been lauded for their curative properties that help treat rheumatic, skin, gynecological, respiratory and neurological ailments. The springs at Therma, Aghios Kirykos, Lefkada and Aghia Kyriaki have attracted visitors for millennia. In ancient times the people of Therma were called Asclepians after the god of healing Asclepios, while near Therma some ruins of the ancient city can be explored underwater.

Modern health tourism based around the island’s radium-rich springs started blossoming in the 1920s and remains popular, with organized spas, hotels and hydrotherapy pools offering sessions in the water combined with massage and more. Talking of springs, Ikaria is also known for its “immortal water,” a cold spring near the village of Xylosyrtis that is thought to be beneficial for treating kidney ailments.

Article By Alexia Amvrazi, as first published in Kathimerini’s Taxidia magazine.

Goat herd gathering milk to make kathoura cheese, Ikaria’s mozarella-like staple.