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Birkbeck study on Stoicism and its impact on mental health

Research shows that simple online training based on the increasingly popular Stoic philosophy benefits those at risk of anxiety and depression.

This is a photo of a person in a depressed state

In a new study by researchers at the Affective and Cognitive Neuroscience lab at Birkbeck, cognitive trainings based on the principles of Stoic philosophy reduced emotional vulnerability in those at risk of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are two of the most prevalent mental health issues facing people in the UK today, costing the economy billions of pounds each year.

Stoicism as a philosophy has been growing in popularity online and in self-help circles, touted as a method of improving wellbeing, but until recently there has been no research into the claims made. Stoicism promotes a mindful attention to, and responsibility for, one’s own emotional state and behaviour. In Stoicism, wellbeing can be achieved by examining situations that cause the individual distress and also by an acceptance of what is beyond our control, and deeper contemplation on what is ultimately good or indifferent.

Alexander MacLellan, MSc Health and Clinical Psychology, led the study comparing three groups of people completing different online cognitive trainings over an eight-day period. The first experimental group completed training consisting of a structured journal with three exercises derived from Stoic philosophy. The second experimental group completed the Stoic training alongside an adaptive cognitive training, in which the difficulty of a memory task changes in line with the participant's performance, and the third group was an active control group completing simple, non-adaptive cognitive training in which the difficulty of the memory task remained at the easiest level throughout. All three groups were assessed on their anxious and depressive symptoms before and after the training period.

The results, accepted for publication in the journal, Cognitive Therapy and Research, showed the experimental groups had reductions in rumination by 18% and 13% respectively compared to the control group. Rumination is the biggest predictor of future onset of depression and is a thought-process which tends to linger on sad or dark thoughts. The group who completed the Stoic training also showed a 15% increase in self-efficacy, a factor known to engage positive coping in response to stress.

Alexander MacLellan, the student leading the research, said: “Though there has been increasing interest in the philosophy of Stoicism over recent years, this is the first study to investigate the practice of Stoicism and observable benefits in wellbeing. Our findings demonstrate potential for supporting emotional wellbeing through the practice of Stoicism which can be combined with other established cognitive interventions. Our study has implications for augmenting and supporting existing therapies, as well as providing a promising solution to bolster resilience in those at risk of anxiety and depression in an accessible and cost-effective way.”

Nazanin Derakshan, Professor of Experimental Psychopathology, who supervised the research, said: “In current times of uncertainty and stress, when the need for practicing resilience has become a top priority, Stoicism appears to offer a promising way forward in protecting and nurturing our emotional health.”

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