The Oldest Stress Management Method

It is claimed that the first stress management method was authored by Marcus Aurelius, an emperor of Rome from 161 to 190 A.D.  During his 19-year reign, Marcus faced considerable hardship – war with barbarian tribes, a hostile takeover attempt by a close ally, an incompetent and greedy stepbrother as co-emperor, an economy on the verge of collapse, and the death of several of his children.

Marcus relied on his stress management methods to remain poised, effective and a prudent leader – here are his three practices:

First, the so-called Premeditatio Malorum which means pre-meditation of adversity.  This is a method Marcus would use to anticipate stressful situations (for Christians the equivalent of this is prayer ahead of trying times).  Every morning before he would hold a meeting with his senators and generals, he would meditate ahead to expect problems and sometimes conflicts with them.  In his meditation, he would tell himself that these problems and conflicts ought not to be avoided but calmly accepted because otherwise you would lose your poise in dealing with them.  How can we apply this in our modern day and age?  When we are in a difficult situation, we can ask ourselves: what is the worst thing that could happen to me in this tough situation?  Let’s say you are going to take a big exam and you’re scared that you might flunk it.  Try imagining yourself flunking it already as the worst thing that could happen.  Then, slowly tell yourself to calmly accept the outcome. Once you have accepted that worst case scenario you are now ready to take the exam peacefully.   It’s called “nothing to lose and everything to gain” mentality.

Second is reframing.  When we encounter a troubling situation, reframe the situation as an opportunity to practice a virtue.  If we are tempted to get angry, focus on practicing the virtue of patience.  If we are tempted to fall into lust, think of the methods to practice the virtue of chastity such as prayer and regular confession.  If we are getting attracted to money and material things, try to practice the virtue of detachment and generosity.  In the Christian point of view, this is responding evil with virtue or not to answer evil with evil. And virtue will only grow when it is tested. “Virtue is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9) The more virtues we practice, the more we live a calmer life in the midst of trials.

Third is reality check.  Instead of focusing on the subjective negative emotion, we should look at the situation objectively much like a scientist or a mechanic would look at a technical problem.  We tend to describe bad situations that happens to us as “terrible”, “horrible” and “devastating”. These are adjectives that could amplify stress.   An Elon Musk story illustrates this.  There was a little girl who came to Elon Musk because she was afraid of the dark.  Elon Musk told her, “Don’t be afraid of the dark.  Darkness is just the absence of photons.”  It helped the girl remove her fright that was rooted on the mystery of darkness.  We can apply this method in our workplace when perhaps we have made a poor presentation to our boss.  Instead of telling ourselves, “Damn, that was an awful presentation. I will never get promoted!”  Get rid of the emotional reaction and stick to the facts by saying, “It was not my best performance.  I will be better next time.”

And as a bonus advise to help solve our problems, it might be better to know more about the problem first instead of thinking right away of a solution.  As Albert Einstein would say “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Of course, the best stress management method comes from Scripture or from Christ Himself when he said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Mt 7:24-25) Resilience comes from obeying God word.