Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Stoicism

How an ancient philosophy influenced modern-day science

Over 2,000 years ago, thinkers meeting in the Stoa Poikile marketplace¹ would unknowingly create a lasting philosophy that would come to influence political leaders and laypeople of all ages, from Ancient Rome to the 21st century. This virgin philosophy, considered more so as a way of life by its practitioners, stressed the importance of living an ethical and virtuous life. Of course, this philosophy is Stoicism.

In a massively simplified TL;DR, Stoics believe in living in accordance with nature. Nature, in this context, refers to the reality and laws that govern the universe. Stoics place significance on accepting things as just as they are- there is no such thing as good or bad, reality simply is. It is one’s attitude that dictates their perception of the situation. By adopting an equanimous view towards life, mental suffering can be greatly reduced. Humans, in the eyes of the Stoics, all have the capacity for virtue and reason², and by living a life according to these principles can they fall out of the trap of mental ignorance. Thus, Stoicism is a philosophy of action rather than being a mere mental notion (although contemplation, especially of death, does play an important aspect in Stoicism). If you are familiar with Buddhism, these words might greatly resemble the Four Noble Truths.

Stoicism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A visual depicting the Stoic view on passions, or common human sentiments.¹

Fast-forward to the 20th century and a new psychoanalytical method is born: cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT is an approach that seeks to delve into the true root causes of our negative thoughts and habits (hence the name cognitive-behavioral) and take action towards improving them.³ It is used to treat psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, addictions, and disorders. The founders of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, openly stated that most of their work was primarily influenced by philosophy (both Eastern and Western) rather than traditional psychology.⁴ Just have look for yourself at the five ways cognitive-behavioral therapy works⁴:

  1. Monitoring of negative automatic cognitions

  2. Evaluation of the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions

  3. Evaluation of evidence for and against the extreme mental cognitions

  4. Generation of alternative mental cognitions to replace the negative ones

  5. Identification and modification of underlying thoughts that lead to negative predispositions and beliefs

When all of the scientific lingo is brushed aside, the essence of CBT is to turn negative attitudes into positive ones, or at least non-negative ones. Does this not resemble what the Stoics said about changing negative mental attitudes through logic and reasoning? To observe present emotions and thoughts? Even Marcus Aurelius, probably the most famous Stoic of all time, said,

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for ADHD: Hope Mental Health ...
The triad of our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions all cyclicly influence each other.⁵

In an age where information can spread globally in just seconds, it’s easy to get caught up in what seems to be an endless funnel of negativity and despair. However, it is also times like these where Stoic wisdom can resonate beautifully. Observe situations for exactly how they are, live justly, and reflect often to avoid falling into a state of despair. Most importantly, take care of your mental wellbeing. Simply by deciding to take a small step in the right direction can our perception of the present situation drastically improve.

Additional Resources

  • An incredible list of mental health resources from one of my favorite creators, Nathaniel Drew.

  • Meditations, perhaps the most well-known text of all time on Stoic philosophy.

  • This article by ThoughtCo. is an excellent read for a brief rundown on basic Stoic principles.

  • A YouTube video of a mock CBT session outlines the structure of cognitive-behavioral therapy and the origins of our negative perceptions of ourselves.

  • A rundown on CBT, including its history, applications, and methods for achieving goals.

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Works Cited

  1. Pigliucci, M. (n.d.). Stoicism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicism/

  2. Singer, P. (2020, January 13). Ethics - The Stoics. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ethics-philosophy/The-Stoics

  3. Miller, K. (2020, February 12). CBT Explained: An Overview and Summary of CBT. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/cbt/

  4. Robertson, D. (2019). The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy [E-book]. Routledge. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=qXzADwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT6&dq=cbt+and+stoicism&ots=OI12Ik4BK4&sig=KJkQZ9j-GfJZglvjdH4Lv-N68MY#v=onepage&q&f=false

  5. Hope Mental Health. (n.d.). [How thoughts, emotions, and behaviors influence each other]. Hope Mental Health. https://www.hopementalhealth.com/blog/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-improves-adhd-scores