Anxiety, REBT and Stoicism

(Article is by guest writer Ed Kelly Jr. See bio below.)

I have wrestled with anxiety for most of my life. I am not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, 40 million adults or 18.1% of the US population, have Anxiety Disorder.  I was told I took after my mother who was the official “worry wart” in the family. She would respond to stressful situations by picking her ears until they bled. I picked my fingers. I was around 50 when I began to address the problem. My journey out of anxiety and my introduction into Stoicism began when a therapist mentioned REBT, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.

Albert Ellis was the founder of REBT which he describes as being inspired by two Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) and Epictetus (50-135 CE). Stoicism and REBT share three core principles: the emotive-cognitive connection, acceptance, and control.

The Emotive-Cognitive Connection
This principle increased my awareness that the anxiety I was experiencing was not determined by life’s events but rather by the way I cognitively evaluated those events. My thoughts and imaginations were worse than life itself. It was from Epictetus that Ellis drew one of REBT’s main thoughts:

“Men are disturbed not by the things that happen,
But by their perceptions about them.”[i]

In other words, it was not the event but my thinking and beliefs about the situation that was responsible for my psychological state of anxiety. My emotional state is to a degree determined by the way I think. The Stoics believed that reason was humanity’s greatest gift and suggested that it is wise to practice clear thinking as it has a fundamental role in our well-being and moderating our emotions. I practiced the exact opposite and spent most of the time “catastrophizing” – worrying about the future. I created an artificial reality with my negative day dreaming about what could possibly happen. I fabricated a living hell by imagining a fictional worst-case scenario that I felt was real.

Ellis proposed what he called the ABC Model to help people recognize that our emotions and behavior are not determined by events but by the way we think. This model also suggests ways to change the emotional consequences of a situation by changing beliefs. Here is an example of the model:  “I receive an email at work announcing a meeting tomorrow at 2pm when we will discuss the 2020 budget and the current program. I began to think: “Oh, no! They are going to downsize, and I am going to lose my job. How will I pay for my new car?” I begin to pace the floor, picking my fingers and ate a whole box of Oreo cookies.”

When applying the ABC Model, I like to start with (C) or consequences and work backwards.

C             Consequences:
Here I ask myself: what were the consequences of the event? What did I do?
“I paced the floor, picking my fingers and ate a whole box of Oreo cookies.” 

A             Activating Event
Here I ask myself: what was the situation – the adversity?
I receive an email at work announcing a meeting tomorrow at 2pm when we will discuss the 2020 budget and the current program.”

 B             Beliefs
Here I ask myself: What was I telling myself about this situation? What were my thoughts? What were the demand I was making in those thoughts?
“Oh, no! They are going to down-size and I am going to lose my job. How will I pay for my new car?”

Now when I slow down and examine those thoughts and ask are they rational, logical, true or false, I realize I cannot read minds and I do not know for certain that “down-sizing” or “deletion of positions” is the subject of this meeting. This challenging or disarming of the irrational thoughts and changing the beliefs (B) is the key to decreasing my anxiety.  From this position I can take a whole different approach to the situation, for instance, I might reinterpret the situation as an opportunity: “Great, this will give me a chance to brainstorm and come up with ideas to save the company some money.”

Changing my beliefs helped me to remain calmer and to recognize some of the automatic thoughts in situations where I used to get stressed.

Control and Acceptance
Epictetus taught that there are many things beyond our control. He wrote”

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” [ii]

Epictetus has this interesting line: “Only a mad man or fool wants a fig in winter.”[iii] Since in his Mediterranean world the reality is that figs are not available in winter, he deemed it foolish to want them. He also wrote:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen; this is the path to peace.”[iv]

How many times have I frustrated myself, creating anxiety because I fought or resisted reality (tried to get a fig in winter)?

Zeno told a story about a dog tied to a moving cart to reveal the suffering incurred by resisting reality. The dog can pull against the cart barking and choking as he is being dragged along. Or the dog can stop resisting and go with the cart. For the longest time, I was that dragged dog. I was anxious because I wanted things to go “my way.” I expected the world to be perfectly fair and just. I expected others to act the way I want them to act and “look out” if they didn’t!  I placed irrational demands not only on myself but others and the world. Through REBT and using reason I have come to recognize that there are certain things beyond my control, things that I cannot change. I have learned to not get upset about how things are in “reality.”

By using reason, I have been able to change what I can change and accept what I cannot change. I have learned to let go. Reflecting on that, I realize how much energy I wasted concentrating on things I had no real control over. I have learned to live in the present moment and accept my present circumstances without judgement or an expectation of perfect outcome. I am no longer what Epictetus called a “bratty child” who did not understand this fact of life.

I have also adopted a practice of Marcus Aurelius. At the end of each day, he reflected on the day’s events and his responses.  He examined how he thought and reacted to events that had occurred, so that he could be more aware in the future. By adopting this practice, I am working daily to improve and live a more virtuous and more balanced life. I have discovered that certain good habits hold a key to living a happier and less anxious life.

Some suggested readings:

Robertson, Donald. The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2010, London: Routledge

Irvine, William. The Guide to a Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. 2009, New York, Oxford

Ellis, Albert & Harper, Robert. A Guide to Rational Living. 1997, Wilshire Bks.

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[i] Epictetus, Enchiridion 5

[ii] Ibid,1

[iii] Epictetus, Discourses III:24:86

[iv] Enchiridion 8

Guest writer Edward Kelly Jr. lives in Red Oak, Iowa, with his wife Rose. He was a Fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher for 20 years and in 1995 began a journey out of fundamentalism through the influence of such writers as Paul Tillich and James Barr. He has a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) and is now a Humanist Chaplain and Celebrant.

1 thought on “Anxiety, REBT and Stoicism”

  1. What a wonderful article, Ed! Thanks so much for allowing us to publish this. You have given some very powerful advice in a very compact package here. I hope more people will be inspired to investigate Stoic practices and be helped by them.


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