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Premeditation of Adversity and the Four F's

Updated: 4 days ago

"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

photo of a large speckled owl on a branch in front of a large rock, looking into the distance
photo of a large speckled owl on a branch in front of a large rock, looking into the distance

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.