Stress Management and Stoicism

💡Note: this writing is on the more research/technical/scientific side as it mentions studies and philosophies. Also, I am not a doctor; these are just my findings and thoughts.

Placebos were only assumed to be effective if people were tricked into believing the drug was real. But that may not actually be true. Even believing in the placebo itself may be enough to change our mental and physical constitutions.

Placebos and reframing can help reduce stress.

Marchant, author of Cure and science journalist, sites a study at Harvard Medical School, where people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) were given a placebo sugar pill. They knew they were not taking a drug, but the intention of taking 'something' seemed to allow them to experience symptom relief. The mind seemed to have healed and reduced many IBS symptoms. Implications for medicine, psychology, and philosophy are huge.

So how does strength of belief and reframing our thinking affect our current lives? Today we are mostly plagued mentally and physically stress. We all know that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress triggers 'flight or flight' responses, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These were obviously more 'ancient' biological responses, but if experienced chronically, increase the risk of many also chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and dementia.



How you think about things can greatly affect your physical health and stress. Take optimism, probably the best known fighter of stress. Optimism doesn't just reduce it - it helps the mind and body repair itself. Positive beliefs can reduce stress hormones like cortisol and even dampen the nervous system that overacts. Viewing yourself positively can help keep you sane, even if you somewhat inflate yourself.

The role of the mind on the body dates back to ancient medicine.

This link between the body and the mind, or emotions, isn't a new phenomenon. Whether it's in Ancient Chinese, Indian, or Roman medicine, healing practices have historically emphasized rebalancing the mind and the body. The term stress as related to the human condition first emerged in scientific literature in the 1930s. It's a very umbrella term for feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, angry, etc. However, Dr. Esther Sternberg (The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions) first linked the immune system to the central nervous system and explained how immune molecules in the blood could trigger brain function, greatly affecting our emotions. This revolutionized how our human body and mind were integrated. Stress is probably the top regulator between our physical and emotional health.

However, stress is not always bad. There is a balance to be struck.

You probably notice that some of the most highly successful people around you are decently stressed. Stress can be stimulating and give us the kick in the butt to take action. However, as you also know, it can be extremely mentally draining. You can easily feel tired and depressed as your mind becomes more cluttered. Stress affects your performance like a bell curve. A decent amount is good and invigorating, but too much will lead to your brain to short out. Your immune system will attack stress like it is an invader, but if it is long term stress, your immune system will be the one being attacked. The constant rush of cortisol shuts down your immune system, making it weaker against other malaises such as just a cold. That's why when you're stressed out, it is easier to get sick. And what do we call extended stress? Burnout.



Psychological burnout is very much related to physiological burnout - an inability to respond to any stress with even a little bit of cortisol. And so, chronic stress actually changes how your body reacts to stress itself and other hormones. In fact, extended stress can actually cause men and women to experience lower fertility as reproductive hormones are shut down. Insomnia, depression, anxiety, obesity, and high blood pressure are all common results.

Stoicism guides my thinking and helps me manage my stress.

Bringing it back to stress, emotions, and bodily reactions, how can we reframe our thinking? Let's talk a little bit about stoicism, a philosophy that I try to encompass. It teaches that the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. Essentially, it teaches the 'development of self control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions'. It emphasizes rationality and reason.

Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, one of the most famous stoics, wrote that:



There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Despite all the science and philosophies, stress is still difficult to manage. In the end, striking a balance is most important.

The fact remains is that most of the things that stress us out are either very short term things that will not matter, or things that haven't happened yet. Most of these stressors are decisions, as us humans seem to be forever succumbing to decision paralysis. Simultaneously, we have too many decisions, and no matter what we choose we will regret. But that's been our whole lives, really. You chose to learn an instrument, to go to a school, to study hard or not, to make certain friends. Every moment of every day puts you on a different trajectory, so why stress about the uncertainties to come? It seems a big masochistic at this point. The better plan seems to make a definite plan and then execute. As Epicurus said, "The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live." However, even if you don't prescribe to Epicureanism, perhaps consider Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One. He references Bob Dylan, who said "Those who aren't busy being born are busy dying." Perhaps it is a better use of time to think about good things instead of what might happen and indefinites. And then become paralyzed with fearful anticipation, only assured that what is certain in life, really, is death.

Granted, this is MUCH easier said than done. I myself am guilty of pretty much all of this... I mean the reason why I think about stress management a decent amount is because I am decently stressed out myself. None of this piece of writing is probably news to you either. But I think that we all need a reminder every now and then to better understand ourselves. This isn't to advocate for excessive optimism that drives out all uncertainties and fears, leading to paralytic complacency. I don't believe in telling yourself "everything will be fine" and then sitting there waiting optimistically for something great to fall from the sky. This is just a call to constantly and actually actively reframe our thinking and stress. To take stress seriously, and to know that its effects run through your veins, blood, and heart. To know when to stress and when not to. Balance is obviously difficult to strike, but your beliefs and state of mind have a direct impact on your well being, placebo or not. So you might as well focus on what you can control and stress accordingly.

I mean... doesn't looking at Winnie take all your stress away or what