A stoic approach to lockdown


By the time you read this we might be out of lockdown or into an extended one. Regardless, some of the ideas here might have relevance during other challenging times. 


I am currently listening to some audio lessons by William B Irvine on stoic philosophy and practices in the Waking Up App

Aside from a broader recommendation to you (the reader) to pursue some of William’s work on stoicism, I find many of the ideas/concepts I’ve learned to be resonating well with me during the early days of this lockdown. I thought I’d share a few of these reflections.  

I should say upfront, that I am a very new student to stoicism, so treat my reflections with some caution. But I do believe that a useful learning tool for students is attempting to communicate what one is learning, so that is what I will try here. 

Stoics seek to build lives in which they reduce the experience of negative emotions and increase the experience of positive emotions. They have developed (and continue to develop) all sorts of practices that help in this process. Some are relatively straight-forward conceptually (e.g. seeking delight in the small things). Others are (delightfully) paradoxical (e.g. last time meditations).  

Many of those practices can be leveraged during difficult/stressful times, setbacks, failures and challenges. Lockdown is one such challenge.

Stoics (as I understand them) would approach such a stressful period with a commitment to themselves to try not to fall into negative patterns of thinking and instead put things in place to try and sustain and even build positive emotion in the face of the challenge. They’d make a conscious decision to not let this difficulty take them down a negative path.  

To clarify, this isn’t about pretending to be happy, or pretending not to be anxious or sad. Rather, it is a decision to implement psychological strategies to minimise negative emotions taking hold, as well as strategies to generate happiness and contentment.


What might that look like?

Well, to start, a stoic might assess their lockdown situation and determine which things are within their control and which things are not. They’d then deliberately focus on those things they can control and seek to extract from them the maximum benefit. 

They might make a conscious decision to not let themselves get caught in ruminating about the uncontrollable difficult things, and commit to checking their thinking multiple times during the day to see if they had fallen into that trap. 

They would try to remain mindful of their feelings during the week and notice when they are feeling anxious or worried or sad. At these points, they’d implement strategies to try and bring more positive emotions into their experience. 

For example, they might seek to discover opportunities from the lockdown. Pick up a lost hobby. Write playful letters or messages to friends. Catch up on lost TV shows. Work in the garden. Get a lot of their uni reading done 😉

When they find themselves thinking about the things they can’t do, they might make a mental note on how they are going to enjoy those things again once lockdown is over and vividly imagine the process of being able to do those things again.  

They might consider the plight of people they know (or have seen on the news) who are worse off, and see if this can cultivate a sense of gratitude for what they haven’t lost. 

It is likely that many stoics would approach lockdown as a test of their resilience – almost like a game sent by the stoic gods to build them into a stronger person. They would see to play the game to the best of their ability, and after it finishes assess how they did and what they could try the next time they are sent a similar challenge.  

Can you treat this challenge as a game sent to you by the stoic gods?

They would seek out moments of delight, in the process perhaps more fully engaging with activities they take for granted otherwise – e.g. the taste of a chocolate bar, a glass of red wine, sitting by a heater. 

In essence, the stoic would say to themselves “I need to approach this lockdown in a way in which I don’t let myself wallow in negative emotion and instead try to bring positive emotion into my life. What activities, choices, decisions and ways of thinking will help me do that?”

As we get into this lockdown week, where do you notice your mind going? Can you notice it settling into negative emotions? Can you notice it looking for the silver lining?

What would your stoic self do?

To finish up, I want to acknowledge that people go into this lockdown with a range of different challenges. For some it is about avoiding boredom and getting work done. For others, there are additional challenges, kids, finances, health problems, loneliness, caring for others. 

It is fair to say that the application of stoic ideas is going to be easier or harder depending on the magnitude of the challenges you face. This however doesn’t negate the stoic methods. They are used to help people adapt to the full range of human struggle. 

But if you decide to play with some of these ideas during lockdown, and it is the first time you have really done so, consider your overall context and treat yourself with compassion if you find it hard to reliably put them in place. A stoic wouldn’t expect themselves to get it right 100% of the time. They would see their efforts as experiments and opportunities for learning and enhancing their capacity to change their emotional world.  

Maybe this lockdown is a chance to build your emotional toolkit. 

Remember – whilst the uni is closed, many of the supports are still available. Don’t be shy in seeking them out if needed – https://students.flinders.edu.au/support 

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Coronavirus Psychological Tools

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