How Marcus Aurelius Conquered Stress (and the Rest of Us Can Too)

To say that Marcus Aurelius had a stressful life would be a preposterous understatement. 

He ran the largest empire in the world. He had a troublesome son. He had a nagging and painful stomach issue. There was a palace coup led by one of his closest friends. Rumors that his wife was unfaithful. The Parthians invaded the Roman client-state of Armenia, triggering a war that would last five years.. The Antonine Plague struck in 165 CE and killed, by conservative estimates, more than 10 million. The River Tiber had one of the worst floods in history, destroying homes and livestock and leaving Rome in famine.  

Should we be surprised that he talks openly in Meditations about his anxiety? About losing his temper? That he sometimes felt ground down and exhausted by life?

Of course he did. 

He had all our problems and more. 

He was besieged by stress. 

And yet that’s exactly why he inspires us. Because he conquered that stress, just like we can. 

“Today I escaped anxiety,” he writes. “Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.”

How did he do that? What can he show us about slaying that demon of stress that we all suffer from?

A lot. 

For starters, the fact that we even know about his anxiety is because of one of those strategies. It was in the pages of his journal that Marcus worked through his problems. Instead of letting racing thoughts dominate his mind and drive him crazy, he put them down on paper. It was also in these pages that Marcus prepared himself for difficulties in advance. He reminded himself that the people he was going to meet during the day would be troublesome, he reminded himself that things were not going to go perfectly, he reminded himself that getting angry never made things better. 

By taking the time to journal and write, he was chipping away at his anxiety, just as we all can–in the morning, at night, on our lunch break. Whenever. 

To calm his anxiety, Marcus was also constantly trying to get perspective. Sometimes he zoomed way out. He meditated on his insignificance. “The infinity of past and future gapes before us,” he wrote, “a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress.”Other times, he zoomed way in, telling himself to take things step by step, moment by moment. No one can stop you from that, he said. Concentrate like a Roman, he said, on what’s in front of you like it’s the last thing you’re doing in your life. 

Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future. 

This idea of being present is key to overcoming our stress.

We are often anxious because of what we fear will happen next, or after what happens next. We worry about worst case scenarios. We dread potential obstacles. But Marcus, from Epictetus, knew that “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”

That’s why Marcus Aurelius spent some much time trying to be present, reminding himself to return to the present moment where nothing is “novel or hard to deal with, but familiar and easily handled.”. 

Like all busy people, Marcus Aurelius had a million things going on. But he also knew that much of what people expected of him or even that he found himself focusing on was not important or necessary. So to reduce stress, he tried hard to separate the essential from the inessential. 

“If you seek tranquility, do less.” But then he makes a critical clarification, “Or (more accurately) do what’s essential… Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time.” 

Was there stuff he had to do that he didn’t want to do? Problems he was stuck with that he’d rather not be stuck with? You bet. That’s life. 

Which is why he, and all of us, have to practice acceptance. 

That’s all we need, he said, willing acceptance at every moment. You can scream “until you turn blue” and curse the world “as if the world would notice!” Or you can “accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given.”

Finally, Marcus Aurelius worked hard to be a good friend to himself. Although he was firm and strong and self-disciplined, he did not whip himself. He knew that it was inevitable that he would mess up. We all do. 

The key, he said, is to just focus on getting back on track. Don’t dwell. Don’t call yourself an idiot. Don’t smack your forehead in anger. 

No, “get back up when you fail,” he said, “celebrate behaving like a human.” “When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances,” he said, “revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

It would be wonderful if we didn’t have to do any of this. 

If life was easy. If things always went right. 

That’s just not possible though. 

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It is the friction of the plates of our responsibility rubbing against each other. 

But if stress is inevitable, anxiety and anger and worry are not. Marcus believed that these things were a choice. That we could work past them, through them, that we could discard them, as he said, because they are within us, or at least up to us. 

We can slay our stress because it’s not an external enemy. 

It is an inner battle. 

Written by Ryan Holiday