5 Strategies from Ancient Philosophy That Will Improve Your Mental Health Today
Fun Fact: The field of psychology traces its roots back to ancient philosophy, and the majority of advancements in clinical psychology are just repackaged concepts discovered thousands of years ago from disciplines like Stoicism and Buddhism.
Don’t believe me? Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), drew heavily from ancient philosophy. REBT evolved into modern Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which is the current gold standard. CBT has spawned several “waves,” with the current “3rd Waves” including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- CBT focuses on identifying maladaptive (aka, unhealthy) thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and replacing them with healthier ones.
- DBT focuses on helping people learn to regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, be mindful in the present moment, and communicate and interact effectively with others.
- ACT is about accepting things as they come. Instead of trying to change unwanted thoughts or feelings directly, ACT focuses on changing the relationship people have with their thoughts and feelings — allowing them to develop compassion for themselves and work to live in accordance with their values.
If this seems like too much to keep track of, you’re not alone. There are a lot of nuances to CBT and it’s incarnations, but the majority of these concepts can be distilled down to a small handful of useful strategies you can employ in your life to improve your mental health. We can uncomplicate them by going to the source — philosophy.
Here’s a list of some timeless wisdom and how it can help you weather the storm of modern stress.
1. Focus on What is Within Your Control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus
This concept is one of the core tenets of Stoicism. Everything in life can be placed into one of two categories: things we can control and things we can’t. We feel hopeless and powerless when we spend our time, energy, and effort on things outside our control. 99% of what happens in our lives is outside our control — the weather, the economy, global pandemics, whether your boss gives you a raise, if your crush also likes you, whether a family member stops using drugs, or how long you’ll live.
No amount of effort, wishing, hoping, or screaming will have much of an effect on that 99%. But if you focus on the 1% that is within your control, you’ll feel empowered, achieve more, and be happier.
Let’s say you’re running late for work. No matter how much you curse the redlight you just hit, it won’t change any faster — it’s outside your control. Your energy is better directed toward what is within your control — leaving earlier next time.
You can’t control how other people talk to you or how they treat you, but you do control how you react to them. You also control whether you rehash painful memories or toxic words others have told you or whether you let go of them and stop internalizing negative self-talk.
Focus on what is within your control and watch how much your life improves.
2. Watch What You Practice
“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running … therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” — Epictetus
Whatever you practice, you get better at — good or bad. If you went to therapy, your therapist would spend the majority of the session helping you develop new habits. If you catastrophize and worry all the time, you’ve developed the habit of worrying all the time — some people are Olympic-level worriers. So learning to control worrying is a skill you need to practice.
Psychologists see most psychological issues as a skills-deficit. Take a child with ADHD, who is impulsive and hyperactive. A psychologist would help the child practice things like raising their hand and waiting their turn to speak, sitting in a chair for progressively longer periods of time, etc. They’re helping the child practice a new skill — a new habit.
How you eat is a habit — are you practicing eating healthy food or junk food?
Exercise is a habit — are you practicing working out 30 minutes a day or slowly melting into your couch?
Thinking is a habit — are your thoughts negative or positive, empowering or defeating, compassionate or judgmental?
3. Stop Complaining
If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. — Marcus Aurelius
“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” — Seneca
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
When has complaining ever made anything better? Complaining is a habit that creates or prolongs misery, anxiety, and anger.
Even simple things like doing chores — most people don’t like doing them, but they need to be done. You could sit around complaining for 45 minutes about how many dirty dishes there are in your sink and how much you hate doing them — or you could get off your ass and do them in 5 minutes.
Or maybe you have to get a tooth pulled in a week. Will it hurt? Probably. But the more you complain, the more attention and mental space you’re dedicating to it. So instead of being in physical pain for the 20 minute-procedure, you’re actively creating mental suffering for the 7 days leading up to the procedure, plus the 20 minutes of physical pain.
Remember that thing you dreaded for weeks or months? Then, when it finally happened, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d made it out to be in your mind? How many times has that happened? How much time and energy have you spent being miserable, anxious, or angry for something that ended up not being that bad?
4. Be Present
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Life is available only in the present moment.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness is at the core of Buddhist philosophy, and countless people have benefitted from its practice for centuries. We can use mindfulness to cope with the stress of daily life and to monitor our thoughts.
Depression lives in the past — we mentally relive negative experiences and feel defeated and worthless all over again. Anxiety lives in the future — we worry and catastrophize with “what if” thinking. But the present can be our refuge by focusing our awareness on the here-and-now. This article covers ways to practice mindfulness and other coping skills.
ACT and DBT use mindfulness to help people observe and separate themselves from negative thoughts. Instead of someone thinking, “I’m a terrible person,” they learn to think, “I am having the thought that I’m a terrible person.” This effectively separates the person from the thought, which strips it of its negative effects. It seems like a subtle change, but it has a powerful impact.
5. Practice Nonjudgment
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others.” — Gautama Buddha
“Do not judge yourself harshly. Without mercy for ourselves we cannot love the world.” — Gautama Buddha
We constantly judge ourselves, others, and the world around us. This is bad, that is good, she’s prettier than me, I should be skinnier, I’m not smart enough. These judgments cripple our ability to be happy or at peace. Just because you’re overweight doesn’t mean you’re ugly or a bad person. That number on the scale should have no bearing on your self-worth. I know too many people whose day is determined by what their scale says — if the number is lower, it’s a good day; if the number is higher, it’s a bad day.
It’s easy to be critical, competitive, or “Type A” to the point it becomes a hindrance. A tenet of DBT is balancing the ideas that you’re currently good enough and that you can be better. Just because you’re good enough as a human being doesn’t mean you’re perfect — you can always improve in some area. But just because you’re not perfect doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s possible to love yourself, practice self-compassion, and still strive to be better.
The world doesn’t need more critics; it needs more compassion.
Bonus Strategy: Harness the Power of Your Breath
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
The main way I teach relaxation to my therapy clients is through deep breathing. We have to breathe to stay alive, so why not use our breath to calm down or stay relaxed? It’s free, doesn’t require fancy techniques, and can be done virtually anywhere anytime.
When we become anxious or angry, our bodies kick into fight-or-flight mode — an evolutionary advantage to help us fight or run away from predators. But in today’s world, we aren’t being chased by sabertooth tigers nearly as often. Getting an adrenaline rush when a bear is coming after you makes sense, getting one when the copy machine has a paper jam for the 5th time today or someone took your stapler…not so much.
Practicing deep breathing, and combining it with mindfulness, can help kick our bodies out of this fight-or-flight response so we can maintain our sanity, our relationships, and our job. Here’s a Healthline.com article on how to practice it.
When people ask me for book recommendations to improve their mental health, I recommend books on Buddhism and Stoicism — not psychology. Psychology’s great, but sometimes it’s too jargony and complicated. Practical philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism are simple and effective, and people throughout history have attributed much of their success to adopting these practices. And like I said, a lot of modern psychology is just repackaged philosophy, so why not go to the source?
The two books I recommend the most often are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. They’re easy to understand and eminently useful.
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