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3 strategies from Ancient Greek Stoics to reframe your stressful thoughts in less than 5 seconds

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMarch 27, 2020

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While the concept of Stoicism doesn’t necessarily conjure vibes of positivity and joyfulness, those are precisely the philosophies upheld by the Ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, and especially so in the face of hardship. And given that we’re amid high tensions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s great news that a special podcast episode of The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos swooped in to offer helpful strategies for reframing your thoughts that are stressing you out, courtesy of those OG Greek stoics.

On the episode, Bill Irvine, PhD, philosopher and author of The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilientexplains how the Stoics regulated their negative feelings with “framing,”which let’s you decide how to drive your narrative. Ultimately, it’s easy to feel despair, anxiety, and particularly anger when your wedding gets postponed, your mom won’t stop going to the grocery store, you’re on a furlough of indefinite length, and so on, and so forth. You’re not required to be chipper about any of that, but by reframing your thoughts, you can focus on what you can control, like your character or your emotional regulation. That can be helpful when dealing with the little day-to-day infuriating goings-on.

“When something bad happens to you, you have about five seconds to decide how you’re going to frame it.” —philosopher Bill Irvine, PhD

“Your attitude toward whatever negative thing happened can have a profound impact on whether anger arises within you,” Irvine says in the podcast. “When something bad happens to you, you have about five seconds in which to decide how you’re going to frame it. And not only will you not get angry, but you might also find yourself laughing in response to it.”

Color me intrigued. So how do you respond to the setbacks, challenges, and everyday stressors now part of this weird new world? If you’re looking to alter your narrative, here are three strategies for reframing your thoughts:

1. Comedic framing

Currently we’re experiencing a new and unique tsunami of obstacles we’ll hopefully never need to face again, and, you know, that’s high-key overwhelming. One of the best ways to ride the wave, particularly when it comes to annoying-but-not-life-threatening things, like canceling a vacation, is to have a hard laugh about the situation.

“It’s very, very difficult to get angry when you’re laughing. And my own experience is, you get good at finding the comic element of what happens.” —Irvine

“When possible, when something unexpected or negative happens, try to tell a joke about it—try to turn it into a joke,” Irvine says. “It’s very, very difficult to get angry when you’re laughing. And my own experience is, you get good at it—you get good at finding the comic element of what happens.”

2. Storytelling framing

Envision yourself older and wiser, telling the true story of right now to somebody else. Now, work to make that story (which you wouldn’t be able to tell if you didn’t ultimately survive it, of course) your reality. This exercise pushes you to be a better version of yourself because it lets you pause and really think to yourself, “Okay, do I really want to throw a temper tantrum about this? Do I want to keep making impulse trips to the grocery store because I’m bored? Should I dismiss this as ‘an overreaction’ and be on the wrong side of history?” Consider what choices you ultimately want to be part of your story.

“Act as if you were someday going to tell the truthful story of how you handled the pandemic, and do your best in your daily actions to make it a really great story,” says Irvine.

3. Challenge framing

With challenge framing, imagine these Stoics controlling everything. “They spend their time trying to think of ways…and setbacks that they can expose you to,” Irvine says. “And it’s like a game between you and them. You have a different frame of mind, because then when you’re set back, you think in terms of, ‘Oh it’s a test, they’re testing me again,’ And then you respond to that test.”

It’s a lot of bravery to summon when these challenges are one hydra short of being Herculean, but the key element to this is reacting fast. Not too fast that you’re jumping into action without thinking it through, but before your nervous thoughts transform into rumination.

“As soon as you realize you’ve been set back, think of it as a test of you, of your character, of your ingenuity, by the Stoic gods who actually have your best interests in mind in testing you,” says Irvine. “And then the goal is to find a workaround for that setback and stay calm and collected as you do.”

Again, you’re allowed to simply feel your feelings, don’t get me wrong. But if you need a way to cope, there’s no harm in harnessing humor, courage, and a desire to tell your story the right way. One of my favorite Nora Ephron quotes sums up the essence of reframing your thoughts: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” She wasn’t Greek, but homegirl earned her laurels.

If you’re already working out from home, why not strength train your emotional resilience as well? And if you’re feeling down in the dumps about COVID-19, here’s how to deal with those emotions.

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