"The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are." -- Marcus Aurelius
This quote by Marcus Aurelius emphasizes the importance of having a calm and untroubled mind, looking at things as they truly are, being prepared for adversity, and accepting what comes our way without excessive desire or aversion. When we practice premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of adversity, we actively imagine things that could go wrong or be taken away from us. The Stoics believed that by doing this, people could cultivate inner resilience, overcome fear and anxiety, and approach challenges with wisdom and equanimity. Sounds great. Piece of cake. But what does that look in relationship to recovering from traumatic events, though? Things that should be simple often aren't when we unknowingly look through life through the lens of trauma responses and compensatory self-protective behaviors. We don't want to simply "stuff our feelings" and "suck it up" to accept "what comes our way" while ignore the behaviors we developed as a response to traumatic events. That would basically be living like we are already living. No change. No growth.
Peter Walker's "Four Fs" - fight, flight, freeze, and fawn - are instinctual responses that humans and animals can have in response to perceived threats or danger. Trauma survivors may be more prone to these responses due to the lasting impact of their past experiences. While premeditation of adversity can be a helpful tool for trauma survivors, it is important to use it in a safe and mindful manner to avoid activating these responses, while still practicing what Stoicism as a discipline can offer.
How do we safely use premeditation of adversity as a coping technique without sliding into fawning response or any of the other Four Fs cited by Pete Walker?
One way trauma survivors can safely use premeditation of adversity is to start with small, manageable challenges and gradually work up to more difficult scenarios. In a nutshell, premeditatio malorum is negative visualization. Imagining the worst possible outcome of a situation to strengthen yourself against hardship. At first glance, it seems counterintuitive for healing, especially after experiencing trauma. Shouldn't we be working on looking at the bright side, or looking for the silver lining?
In some cases, I don't think so. Here's why: When we have experienced trauma, especially repeated trauma that affects our thoguht patterns and very brain function, it's not hard to slide into trauma responses we once used to keep ourselves safe, even when thinking about potential new situations, because we once needed these responses to either stay alive, or help us cope with the aftereffects of repeated trauma. We use them even when we don't need them.
Example: I book a speech or a talk and spend the weeks before struggling to sleep and keep my appetite, and on the day of, I get nauseated and throw up before the talk, all the while forgetting even the basic outline of the what I plan to say. Why? Because the first time I gave a speech (in high school) I bombed it and was laughed at by the full audience, including the teacher. It was public humiliation at a time when I was vulnerable, struggling to create an intellectual indentity for myself in a world where variables included looking very different from everyone around me and having painful low self-esteem. For some reason, this affected me quite negatively and I carried compensatory beahviors (that did me no good) for years after.
Therefore, I must now brace myself for facing the same humiliation before every other speech I give because that's what my body has gotten used to doing. In fact, it's become so used to doing it, that I can't rationalize myself out of doing it. I book a talk, and my heart begins to race, even though the talk is months away. Our bodies take over so easily. It's survival, or perceived survival.
But of what import is perceived survival? We either live or we die. We either bomb the speech or we slay the speech, but in either instance, in this society, we are not likely to die from giving a talk, no matter how badly it goes. But the protective emotional parts of us are not likely to recognize this without training, and learning to think different post-trauma requires thinking, not reacting. Part of trauma recovery includes learning to trust our logic over our emotions, and there's a way to do this without dissociation. This is where premeditatio malorum comes it. It's imaginative thought. It's systematic. It's logical. It's dispassionate. Thinking helps override the automatic emotional responses within which our bodies have grown used to operating.
Stoics believed there are three kinds of situations in life. These are things we can completely control, things we can partially control, and things we cannot control in any way. We'll talk about this in another blog post, but let's look at it like this: We may not always have control over events in our life, but we do have control over our response to these events. Stoics believe that we have the greatest chance of reacting to events that come as a surprise. We get blindsided, traumatized, throw off kilter and either need time to recover, or in the case of true traumatic events, may struggle to cope. If, however, you have already prepared for these events, you won't be surprised. You will be able to remain calm and clear-headed. That's why Stoics believe in practicing premeditatio malorum. Imagine a thing and all the ways it can go sideways. Let yourself practice being in the worst of the worst in your mind. I once passed out in public ( an allergic reaction to some COVID-cleanser spray the employees at Marshall's were required to use at their registers after each sales transaction). I made it out to the front sidewalk, then passed out. I woke up on the curb with a very concerned gentleman standing over me. After that, I was afraid to go to that store again. It was embarrassing. What if I passed out again? What if I woke up on the sidewalk? What if I had an anaphylactic reaction to the spray and died right there?
Premeditatio malorum look at that might go something like this:
I'm walking into Marshall's. If I see someone with a spray bottle, and I can choose to leave right away. Okay, I don't actually see a spray bottle. It's been two years and the COVID cleansings have lightened up everywhere, so they might not even be using that chemical anymore. But what if I think they aren't and I go up to the register to pay for my item, and someone randomly pulls out the spray and sprays it, and I go down? What's the worst that can happen? I'll go down. Okay, well, last time I had time to get out of the store before I went down, so I'm not likely to hit my head. I just faint. Last time, someone helped me. No one pointed and laughed. No one humiliated me. People were concerned. Perhaps I'll have time to call my husband. Perhaps someone will on my phone. Okay, I get out in the fresh air in time, and I don't get the allergic reaction. I'm fine. Or worst of the worst, I get hit with the smell of the spray and I get an anaphylactic reaction. I'll have my epi pen on me and use it. Probably won't die. And someone can call an ambulance and I can go to the hospital. Worst case, I'll die, but honestly, it's not likely, because I've already called Marshall's and they say they are no longer using that spray.
When I imagine the potential scenarios, I can see it like anyone going through it, like a human experience, not my particuar personal horrifying past experience. What happened once may not continue to happen, though sometiems it does. But also, sometimes it doesn't. I can control the things I can control....calling Marshall's to see if they are currently using that spray, and carrying my epi pen. Things I can't control I can imagine reacting to, and what it all comes down to, what everything comes down to, is life or death...I might die, and if I do, it will be okay. I might get hit by a bus and die on the way to Marshall's, too, or I might buy a bag of gummi bears and choke on one later, when I am home alone. We all die. We all die. We all die. It's okay. Marcus Aurelius says there is no need to fear something that is inevitable, but perhaps that is for another blog post.
Ultimately, imagining the worst helps me to keep a clear head. Chances are the worst won't come, and I don't have to resort to any of the Four Fs to brace myself for the "What ifs."
If you need to, practice self-care and relaxation techniques before and after engaging in premeditation of adversity. This can include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, prayer, or mindfulness meditation. These practices can help us regulate our emotions and reduce the risk of activating a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
Additionally, trauma survivors may find it helpful to work with a therapist or trauma-informed life coach when using premeditation of adversity as a coping technique. A trained professional can provide guidance and support, and help individuals identify any potential triggers or patterns of behavior that may arise during the practice. Hey! LittleBirdCoaching does this. Feel free to contact us with any questions!
Overall, premeditation of adversity can be a valuable tool for trauma survivors when used in a safe and mindful manner. By starting small, practicing self-care, and seeking professional support when needed, trauma survivors can build their resilience and develop effective coping strategies to manage their triggers and challenges.