Reduce Anxiety

How Stoics Coped With Pain in 3 Simple Steps

Lucius Seneca
4 BCE - 65 CE

Hi, my name is Seneca. I am a statesman and Stoic. I lived during the reign of Emperor Nero, a pretty tough time, to be honest.

And as you know, tough times bring a lot of pain, both physical and emotional. Given that we all experience tough times and pain throughout our lifetime, we must learn how to deal with them in the right way.

So our goal for this lesson is to explore how to cope with physical pain in a stoic way.

When you feel physical pain, the mind's role in forming your reaction is harder to see. Pain seems like an immovable fact that owes nothing and has no relation to our thinking.

Yes, pain is pain: a sensation that exists no matter what we think about it.

But even then, we, Stoics, insist that our judgments about those feelings produce our experience of them.

So how much our pain bothers us, how much attention we pay to it, and what it means to us is determined by our judgments.

Because of the natural connection between the mind and the body, those judgments infiltrate the self-talk we engage while being in pain.

What kind of pain bothers you now or bothered you recently?

How do you talk to yourself while in pain? In what words you describe your pain to yourself and other people with whom you share it?

When we feel such kind of pain, we usually say to ourselves: "My day is ruined. Why always me? Why do I have this headache again."

When you describe pain in such emotionally triggering and negative language, you make a big deal out of it - amplifying your distress.

Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Seneca, 1773

Instead, you should try to remember that pain is neither unendurable nor everlasting. You can keep its limits in mind and not escalate the pain through your own imagination and self-talk.

There is a technique that Stoics call 'Phantasia kataleptike' or viewing bodily sensations objectively.

That means that we try to describe external events and bodily sensations as natural processes.

Instead of saying, "My head is going to explode. My day is ruined." it's better to say, "There's a feeling of pressure around my forehead."

It's as if we were describing another person's problems: with greater objectivity and detachment, like a doctor documenting illness symptoms in a patient.

Now, describe your pain as if it is perceived by another person. What is this person (you) experiencing? By doing this you transform negative self-talk into the objective description.

By depersonalizing yourself talking about pain, it is possible to change your emotional reaction towards the pain and reduce the intensity of the pain itself.

This prevents us from focusing too much on the worst-case scenario, catastrophizing our pain to the point where we feel overwhelmed and entirely consumed by it.

In addition to this form of cognitive distancing, it is also helpful to think of pain as confined to a particular body part rather than allowing it to spread.

For example, if you have aching teeth, try to imagine a line around your mind, marking its boundaries, with all bodily sensations, including your teeth pain, on the other side.

Next time you experience pain, try to draw a line around the mind, marking its boundaries, with bodily sensations on the other side, as if viewed from a distance.

Don't make your ills worse for yourself and burden yourself with complaints. Pain is slight if opinion adds nothing to it. If, on the contrary, you start to encourage yourself and say, "It's nothing, or certainly very little; let's hold out, it will soon leave off" – then in thinking it slight, you will make it so.

Lucius Seneca
4 BCE - 65 CE

Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian. He was Rome’s leading intellectual figure in the mid-1st century CE and was virtual ruler with his friends of the Roman world between 54 and 62, during the first phase of the emperor Nero’s reign.

Source: Britannica

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