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Stoicism and Trauma Recovery

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

seagull flying with wings extended against a pale teal blue sky
seagull flying with wings extended against a pale teal blue sky

Trauma can have a profound impact on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The experience can leave us feeling helpless, vulnerable, and overwhelmed, making it difficult to cope after the event or events, or as we grow older. While there are various approaches to trauma recovery, Stoicism offers a unique perspective on how we might approach some aspects of trauma recovery.

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that originated in Greece around the 3rd century BC. It emphasizes personal ethics, rationality, and acceptance of the present moment. The philosophy is grounded in the belief that individuals have control over their thoughts and emotions, and that the key to a good life is to live in accordance with nature and reason. Although it is an old philosophy, I think elements of it apply to life today and some elements fit in with trauma recovery in my opinion.

The core principles of Stoicism align closely with the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a popular form of therapy used to treat trauma. CBT aims to help individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to their symptoms. Similarly, Stoicism encourages individuals to examine their thoughts and emotions and to challenge any irrational beliefs or perceptions. This can help individuals develop a more rational and realistic outlook on their experiences and reduce their symptoms of trauma.

Here are some specific ways that Stoicism can help with trauma recovery:

1. Acceptance of the present moment

One of the central tenets of Stoicism is the acceptance of the present moment. Stoics believe that we should focus on what we can control in the present moment and accept the things that are beyond our control. This can be helpful for people who have experienced trauma, as the experience can leave us feeling powerless and out of control.

By focusing on the present moment, I can practice accepting my current circumstances and take action to improve whatever situation I'm in, even if the improvement means thinking about it differently. When I do this, it help them feel more in control and reduce their feelings of helplessness and despair.

2. Developing resilience

Stoicism suggests that we can develop resilience by embracing adversity and using it as an opportunity for growth. This means that instead of seeing trauma as a source of weakness, or by continually reacting in the present to things that have happened in the past, we can view it as an opportunity to develop strength and resilience. By developing resilience, we can better cope with future challenges and setbacks. This can help us feel more empowered and confident in our ability to handle difficult situations.

3. Focusing on what is within our control

Stoicism suggests that we should focus our attention and energy on what is within our control, rather than things outside our control. This means we should focus on their thoughts, emotions, and actions, rather than trying to control external events, memories of past events, or the actions or opinions of other people. For people actively recovering from past traumatic events, this can be particularly helpful. Trauma can often leave individuals feeling out of control and powerless. By focusing on what is within their control, individuals can regain a sense of agency and empowerment.

4. Challenging negative thoughts and beliefs

Stoicism encourages individuals to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their distress. This can be particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced trauma, as they may have negative beliefs about themselves or the world around them. By challenging these negative beliefs, individuals can develop a more realistic and rational outlook on their experiences. This can help them reduce their symptoms of trauma and improve their overall well-being.

5. Developing self-compassion

Stoicism emphasizes the importance of self-compassion and self-care. Individuals are encouraged to treat themselves with kindness and compassion, particularly during difficult times. For individuals who have experienced trauma, self-compassion can be particularly important. Trauma can often leave individuals feeling ashamed, guilty, or self-blaming. By practicing self-compassion, individuals can learn to be more forgiving and accepting of themselves. This can help them reduce their symptoms of trauma and improve their overall well-being.

Will these five tenets of stoicism "fix" your habitual trauma responses and make everything magically okay? No. First, trauma recovery is complex and there is no magic. It takes exploration. Reframing and replacing old behaviors with new ones. Second, stoicism is a practice and it takes time, thought, and even study, to begin replacing other behaviors and thought patterns with those that align with stoic philosophy, or any behaviors other than the ones we developed as a result of the trauma. But I find that reading stoic texts helps me to reframe my experiences and think about them in differently, in a more neutral way, which helps me to view them without the emotional clouding. I can bring up a memory or an image, and sort of watch it float by, acknowledging what it is, and that it happened, but I don't seem to have the rage or feel the same grief I once used to. I am certain I would not have been able to do this in the early phases of my trauma recovery, but I find it helps now.

Here are some links to check out:

Just some food for thought.

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