Seneca wrote about our natural, involuntary physiological responses. Someone pours cold water on you, and you shiver. They jump out of nowhere to scare you, and you let out a scream. Someone drives rudely, cuts you off, prevents you from passing, and you get upset. These are natural and understandable reactions to external events. Who we are, Seneca said, is not revealed in how we react in those moments. It’s revealed in what happens next.
It’s in that space between stimulus and response, psychologist Viktor Frankl liked to say, that shows who we are. Do we speed up and follow dangerously close behind the person that pissed us off? Do we shout and scream and carry rage with us all day? Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, gave us a better technique in our interview with her for DailyStoic.com:
Learn how to STOP
I used this exercise when I was working as a child psychiatrist. It’s a technique that is often used by family therapists with children who get into uncontrollable rages. I used it again, more recently with executive clients.
Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel what it’s like when you’re overwhelmed with fear/anger/shame etc. Remember something that makes you feel like this and allow it to fill your whole body. Feel the emotion on your skin, in your chest, your mouth, your muscles, and your mind. Once you feel full of it, imagine holding up a big, red STOP sign in your mind and allowing the feeling to dissipate completely, relax your muscles and let the angry feeling leave you. Practice this until you feel you can use it in real life scenarios to stay calm.
Seneca’s other line was that, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.” That’s exactly what Tara is advising. We put in the work now. We stock the pantry before the storm comes. So when the rude or distracted driver does cut us off, we don’t respond by having a frothing-at-the-mouth shouting match with a car moving 65 mph. We STOP, and let the angry feelings leave us, rather than let them ruin our day.