On Outrage: Trump is the Obstacle. Trump is the Way.

Serious question: when is outrage appropriate? Because I’m a progressive democrat and Donald Trump is now president of the United States.

As I write this, my Facebook feed is falling apart. I’ve seen videos of riots in the streets, people punching each other in the face, friend unfriending friend, and many deleting their accounts from pure overwhelm.

Facebook has fallen into a never-ending cycle of clickbait headlines, arguments, and my friends, both republican and democrat, trading barbs via links from their favorite news of the day. 

But I’ve yet to flip my shit, crap on a Trump sign in public or try to eat someone’s face off who smugly laughed at the stunning loss of Hillary Clinton. In fact, I’ve been pretty damn calm… I actually went to sleep around midnight on November 8, before it was clear to me that Trump would win.

Impossible you say?

Maybe you think I’m an older white man who needs to check his privilege, or I just don’t get the importance of what we just voted into office. Because if I did understand, I should be fucking furious, I should feel devastated and already planning my move to Canada.


On November 9th, my wife woke up in tears and asked me why I seemed so positive. Then she then threw me out of the room when I tried to tell her.   

But if she weren’t so upset, I’d tell her the answer to that question is Stoicism.

“Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to thy mind in the case of the knave, and the faithless man, and of every man who does wrong in any way.” – Marcus Aurelius

Isn’t it immoral to stand by calmly amidst such unrest? Isn’t this the time we take to the streets and shout at the top of our lungs that this is unacceptable? Where should the line of acceptance fall? While I’m disappointed by Trump’s divisive win and concerned for our future, the more important question for me is how SHOULD we respond?

I think this post-election period presents us with a unique opportunity to ask ourselves what is the wisest, most ethical way to handle a now wide-spread, increasing rivalry in our country. Because as Marcus Aurelius points out, there will always be shameless men and women in our world, so let’s not wish for the impossible now… it won’t help.

Why Be Against Outrage?

As a type-A, I used to think there are times when action powered by anger would help me obliterate any obstacles in my path and that it made me more resourceful. But 10 years ago, I permanently crippled my health and I suspect it’s because I lived with so much stress and anger.

Today I believe that anger – while useful at times – should never be indulged in, even in the slightest degree, if at all possible.

So if not now… then when? What if someone insults you, you might ask?

Seneca would respond, “THANKS my good kinsmen! For giving me so generous a part that I can love, though not beloved.”

Well isn’t that nice Mr. Holier-than-thou… ok, you say, so what if you’re having a heated argument and then she SPITS on you??

Seneca might calmly whisper to himself, “well… that’s how it seemed to her.”

Haaa, yeah right! Ok fine, you self-righteous sally… then, what if someone kills your wife??? What are you gonna do then?!

“To feel anger on behalf of one’s friends does not show a loving, but a weak mind: it is admirable and worthy conduct to stand forth as the defender of one’s parents, children, friends, and countrymen, at the call of duty itself, acting of one’s own free will, forming a deliberate judgment… not in an impulsive, frenzied fashion. (But) no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason it is unsuited to obtain it: being overly hasty and frantic, like almost all desires, it hinders itself in the attainment of its own object, and therefore has never been useful either in peace or war: for it makes peace like war, and when in arms forgets that (the god of War) Mars belongs to neither side, and falls into the power of the enemy, because it is not in its own power.

In the next place, vices shouldn’t be placed into common use just because they’ve succeeded occasionally: for fevers are also good for certain kinds of ill-health, but nevertheless it is better to be free from them altogether: it is a hateful mode of cure to owe one’s health to disease. Similarly, although anger, like poison, or falling headlong, or being shipwrecked, may have done some good unexpectedly, yet it should not on that account to be classed as wholesome, for poisons have often proved good for health.“ ~Seneca

…And to those of you who say at very least, the ACT OF PUNISHMENT for the murder of your wife is justified by anger:

“Do you think that the law is angry with men whom it does not know, whom it has never seen…? We ought, therefore, to adopt the law’s frame of mind, which does not become angry, but merely defines offenses… as Plato says, ‘no wise man punishes any one because he’s sinned, but that he may sin no more: for what is past can’t be recalled, but what is to come may be checked.’”-Seneca

Almost makes you angry reading that, doesn’t it? Look, I’m not saying you won’t feel any anger from such a horrific loss. Of course you would.

How could we all NOT be overcome by despair, anger and the passionate desire for revenge? I suspect even the best of us would fall into our darkest thoughts. Because we’re not robots. We’re human, highly fallible, subject to our passions at any given time and Seneca understood that, too.

The stoics realized the cold reality that we often can’t control our initial reactions, it’s beyond our reason…but we can control OUR RESPONSE to those initial reactions. And that, Epictetus adamantly affirms, is in our control.

The Biological Case Against Anger

Foolish Quote - Trump

Our amygdala is the main part of our brain where emotions, including anger, are processed. This part of our “lizard brain” is located deep in the medial temporal lobe. It evolved long ago to give us heightened sensitivity to dangers in our environment.

But if those emotions were left unchecked, we’d live in continual reaction to our fears and anger (yes, I know we’re not that far off now).

The prefrontal cortex is the area of our brain responsible for logic, reason, and judgment. It’s called the Executive Center because it regulates our emotions so when we freak out because we see a snake, we can also calm ourselves when we realize it’s just a garden hose. It’s only a recent development from an evolutionary standpoint but it’s higher function is housed in the frontal lobe of the brain.

That means in our brains, our emotional centers, and our rational centers are biologically separated from each other (and for good reason).

Because if we feel emotionally unbalanced, using our logic and reasoning skills literally uses a different part of our brain – the part that’s most likely to give us back calm and control. If we didn’t have a prefrontal cortex, we couldn’t rationalize ourselves to “calm down, because it’s just a garden hose.” We’d have to rely on the passage of time to bring us peace. 

Even without the benefit of modern science, the Stoics observed how our powers of rational thought can be superior to our emotions. To them, rational judgment was divine.

So by making reasoned arguments against anger, the stoics wanted to create a new desire in themselves…a desire to NOT be angry. A desire to be rational – even if aroused by anger.

This is why Seneca fills an entire book called “On Anger”, in order to lay out his case against anger, using pure reasoning and explains why – in any situation – there is never a good enough reason to justify it.

If you haven’t read it yet, I can’t recommend it enough.

Not Your Typical Stoic

Like most people, I used to think a stoic person was just a cold-ass motherfucker who couldn’t feel any emotions or care less about other people…yes, I know lots of British people could fall into this category, too.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that contrary to the stereotype, Stoics were all about action and compassion. Because the stoics also reasoned that it’s in our nature to be social, just and compassionate.

Does the wise man just calmly sit back and do nothing? Of course not. Like the serenity prayer, they exercise the courage to change the things they can change, accept the things they can’t, and develop wisdom to know the difference.

As a progressive Democrat, action and compassion are very important to me because I can’t just sit back calmly and watch Rome burn.

And if we want to pursue justice, then shouldn’t reason prevail above all? Shouldn’t our moral values be born out of a compassionate motivation but also be tempered with wisdom and rational thinking?

If we act out of outrage, then we’re clearly not coming from a place of reason – literally or figuratively. And that’s a dangerous choice we’re making, even if we’re not aware of it – or especially because of it.

So as counterintuitive as it may sound, I don’t want to focus as much on what actions we can take in pursuit of justice.

Instead, I want to share some key coping strategies I’ve learned from Stoicism to help keep your sanity and be more effective (and trust me, this list is as much for me as it is anyone else).


Meditate on the Good

Meditate Good - Trump

As soon as I open my Facebook or turn on the news, the worst, most clickbait-y headlines await me….lots of posts about racism, voter fraud, gun shootings, terrorism videos, illegal immigration, the middle east – and of course, Adolf Hitler is always a MUST-HAVE, crowd favorite.

At the same time, I’m also aware of the amazing and positive changes happening right now as I write this.

Incredible breakthroughs in biotech and technology that may cure common cancers and diseases, the coming revolution in transportation which brings with it the inevitable switch to alternative energy, regardless of who’s President (…no more wars?), and the fact that diverse philanthropic donations has never enjoyed such meteoric heights in our nation’s history.

Not enough?

How much would you miss your iPhone or Android if you couldn’t do remote deposits, email on the couch or candy crush during awkward social engagements? Or if you lost your left hand, how would you cook, use the bathroom, drive?

What about basic civil engineering like running water (hot AND cold), flushing toilets and the working electricity throughout our world that we use many times per day without a single thought? And finally, you live and breathe every day, despite having done nothing at all to deserve it. 

There’s much to be thankful for at any given time – if you want. So if you’re feeling pessimistic, that’s a choice you’re making.  This is not about seeing the good and ignoring the bad. This is about opening up and expanding your world view to see and accept both truths.

Buddhist monks who practice meditation are taught to use negative and positive visualization to stimulate compassion.

An example of negative visualization would be imagining that someone close to you was just in a car accident and she’s lying in your arms, suffering from terrible pain. By empathizing with the suffering of those we care about, our altruistic desire is awakened and exercised.

However, if they begin to feel overwhelmed by the idea their loved ones are suffering terribly, the counter technique is to visualize all the joy and happiness of others. To meditate on the many great people in the world who are helping a great number of people, in order to be filled with hope and optimism.

But should that joy overflow to the point of distraction, the monks will then bring their attention back to the suffering of others again.

In this way, they exercise and build their compassion without being overly attached to either suffering or joy. The ultimate goal for these monks is to build their compassion and use that to act accordingly in the service of others… without losing their sense of equanimity.

And just like the Buddhist monks, we’re also responsible for maintaining our equanimity by managing our focus. Because without that equanimity, we’re living in reaction to our environment and the goal of our action is lost.

Is the world full of terrifying pain and injustice? Of course. Is the world full of genuine grace, unconditional love, boundless joy and hallelujah? Yes.

As Tony Robbin’s says, “what’s wrong is always available, but so is what’s right.” It’s up to us to take the blinders off.

Not In My Control

Pardon Quote - Trump

Did you ever get angry because you haven’t figured out how to control the weather yet? Maybe it rained on your graduation day and after a few moments of huffing and puffing, you laughed at yourself.

Have you thought about how unfair it is that you’re getting older and you still can’t stop time? And regardless of whether you get angry at the sun or not, it will continue to rise and set every day.

Zeno, one of the original founders of Stoicism (think of him like the Justin Timberlake of his boy band), once compared humanity to a dog tied to a moving cart. The cart is like the wheels of fate moving onward. And the dog must run along with the cart or be dragged by it.

Yet the choice remains his. 

So is it wise to be outraged by every murder and every murderer around the world? Should I be outraged that Genghis KHAAAAAAN! raped thousands of women and murdered 40 million people a thousand years ago?

Regardless if I get angry or not, shameless people will exist in the world, tyrants will be in power at times, bad policy will be enacted and the powerful will oppress the powerless.

History will repeat itself in many ways and I can choose to accept this truth or be dragged by it.

Gain the World - Trump

A comedian I saw at Comedy Cellar once joked that it’s almost impossible to be a racist if you live in New York City because you’d be exhausted by the end of the day. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

Because if you think the right answer to every injustice is more outrage, then prepare to be outraged all day, every day.

There are lots of things I don’t have control over. The movement of the planets, the passage of time, life and death, people’s behaviors and feelings. In fact, my sphere of influence is very small and while that may sound defeatist, it’s not only rational, it’s very freeing.

Because there’s no point worrying about what I can’t control or getting angry about it. 

And that brings us to one of my favorite coping strategies…

It’s like having two separate folders in your mind. What you can control and what you can’t. Under the folder of “in my control” is your thoughts, your reactions, and your behaviors. Under the folder of what’s “not in my control” is everything else… and it’s the list of things you need to let go of.

Sometimes when I forget this lesson, I play a mental exercise: I meditate on trying to catch the wind.

How would I make the wind blow south even while the breeze drifts north? Can I push it with my hands? Can I pull it somehow? What tools could I use to influence it? How much progress could I make if I worked on it tirelessly for the next 3 months? 6 months?

After a few moments of trying to solve this impossible problem my mind clears up a bit and I remind myself that “this too, is like trying to catch the wind.” 

The Trichotomy of Control

Gain World - Trump

I should mention here that modern stoicism recognizes the gray area between what’s in our control and what isn’t. Or rather, it underscores it more because it’s still discussed in the original stoicism.

This third folder is called “some control”.

An example from Epictetus is how we go about an ocean voyage. We can choose the captain, the cruise line, the date, the season and look at the forecasts. But if a storm strikes the boat on your way, then that’s “no longer my business” as he says. Because you’ve done your best to have a good voyage beforehand and now it’s up to the captain.

But what if the boat sinks? Then “I do the only thing I’m in position to do,” says Epictetus. To “drown – but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.”

Sounds like a lot of fun at parties, right?

As depressing as that sounds, the wisdom of it shines forth: that even when fate and fortune turn against us, it’s still our responsibility to do the best we can. And if we fail, we’re still expected to be in control of how we react.

The key is that it’s an internal compass, not external.

If your goal is to be a better athlete, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It matters that you tried to improve your skill. If you want to conquer the fear of public speaking, it doesn’t matter that the audience hates you, it matters that you got up to speak and that you faced your fear with courage and inner calm.

And if your goal is to protest Trump policy… dare I say it?

It doesn’t matter whether the policy you were protesting changed or not, it matters that you tried, that you did it with thoughtfulness, courage and you maintained your inner peace.

Because if the goal is never outside your control, then you’re never derailed from your goal. You never stop. You don’t lose hope. You’re not discouraged.

You will have setbacks.

But when fortune turns against us – as it sometimes does – it just becomes more grist for sculpting our character. We become stronger because of it, not in spite of it… “what stands in the way, becomes the way”, as Marcus Aurelius said. 

Because for him, the challenge isn’t what ultimately matters. It’s who we become that matters. This is the meaning behind his famous quote.

Whether you hate Trump or Clinton or anyone else in power, rather than wishing our society didn’t have leaders like them, shouldn’t we rather wish that we were strong enough to withstand leaders like them? And even be better for it?

It’s certainly noble to want to make the world a better place for our neighbor and our children, to want to ease the suffering of others. But in the end, we can only be certain of making ourselves better for the world.

So go ahead and protest, in whatever form you see best. There’s nothing more stoic than standing up for what’s right, even when reasonable people won’t support you. But do it without anger.

Either way, the choice is yours.

Take the Long View – Let Time Tell Its Story

Long View - Trump

I have a quirky, and maybe not so politically correct, theory about people. It’s that the more similar we are, the more we look for differences in each other. 

Have you noticed how South Koreans hate North Koreans? Northern Chinese hate southern Chinese. Puerto Ricans hate Dominicans. Italians from the north hate Italians from the south and vice versa. Ok, maybe hate is a strong word, but they do look down on each other.

As an outsider, the rivalries of Haitians and Dominicans might seem trivial to me. But as a native New Yorker, the hatred for New Jersey is an immutable law of nature. Just… no.

As an American, I find the Australian rivalry funny between New South Wales and Victoria. I mean, COME ON! They’re from the same place for god’s sake! They speak with the same quirky accents, don’t they? They have to have more in common with each other than not!

Yet, as a New Yorker, I can get along easily with the Brits, Australians, South Americans, and Canadians. After all, we’re not that different, are we?

But if you asked me to visit rural Arkansas, Oklahoma City or Alabama…I’d probably hesitate more than a little bit. Because yanks like me blend-in with those good ole’ boys about as well as oil and water.

Yes, we’re all Americans, we all speak English and the fact that we live on the same continent seems significant…certainly, we’re much closer to each other than those in London, Sydney, Buenos Aires or Nova Scotia.

So why do we often get along better with strangers than our neighbors?

It’s like the closer we are, the more distance we seek. And the more distance we have, the more we want to travel to farther exotic nations and seek common ground.

So in my theory, the key motif to all these contradictions is the word distance. It’s funny to me as long as I’m the outsider. But when it lands too close to home, it starts to feel more threatening.


In the same way, I see all humanity.

When our identity is threatened, we want to emphasize our differences in order to reinforce our identities or re-establish our alpha nature by comparison. But when we have enough space, our self-importance fades.

But what if instead of expanding our space, we expanded our identity? Do we need physical distance in order to feel safe, to rise above our differences?

I don’t know if those Blues Travelers were stoics but their song “100 Years” sounds suspiciously like it. Because it won’t mean a thing in a 100 years – none of it. In 100 years, all these silly rivalries mean nothing when you see the rise and fall of entire civilizations, of empires, business empires, the generations of people being born, having kids, growing old and dying.

Do the people from 1,000 years ago affect your daily life? Like us, they lived, they ate, they loved, they fought, they had hopes, disappointments, and dreams…but as Marcus Aurelius says, “of all that life, not a trace survives today”.

In the same way, our actions, our hopes, and worries today will mean nothing to the people 10,000 years from now – assuming humans exist. In the grand scheme, we will all be forgotten – and those who remember us will be forgotten as well.

The stoics call this taking the long view. It goes beyond just meditating on the good.

It’s a way of creating cognitive distance. Of expanding our identity to a cosmic scale. Until – like a magnifying glass that’s suddenly removed – our field of view opens wide.

Marcus Aurelius (and yes, I get the irony he lived 2,000 years ago so shut up about it already) liked to meditate on the impermanence of nature. He’d reflect not only on the eons of time passing by, but space. By doing this the importance of the things he believed was important would lose their significance.

If we were to rise mentally above the earth high enough, it becomes a perfect sphere and the people smaller than ants. If we keep rising, we can begin to see the neighboring planets, the solar system, the galaxy, the neighboring galaxies and a swath of the expansive universe.

We can mentally see the existence of life rise and fall across the eons of time, from the single cell to the almost innumerable complex mammals, including humans… and in the future, the life forms yet to come. And yet, on a cosmic scale, we all share the same home and the same birth.

We can see the massive wheels of time turning, in synchronized motion with the clockwork of the cosmos and massive heavenly bodies. We become the ultimate outsider looking down on the smallest of things…our flash of existence in the thinnest measure of infinite time.

Are democrats to blame for the rise of Trump or are the republicans? Who cares? Let time tell its story. Is the stock market poised for a crash soon? Who knows? Let time tell its story. Is my friend a bigot because he voted for President Trump…what were his true motives after all?

Let time tell its story. In the final balance, the truth always becomes clearer.

And just like at the end of our short lives, when we’re on our death beds, our priorities change. Few things really matter.  So too, should we live our lives.

Just as we gain cognitive distance from our problems to gain a better perspective, taking the long view cultivates our wisdom, patience, and equanimity.

Do I feel the need to read every explosive expose, or march in every protest or donate to all the causes my friends are promoting? No. While I believe it’s important for me to be a voice for good in the world, it also helps if I stay away from the conversation at times.

So when all else fails, this is one of my last lines of defense: I take the long view. I reserve my judgment and let time tell its story. 

The headlines from both my friends and media alike are filled with fear and anger triggers. The question is always, “where’s the outrage?!” on X, Y or Z.

There are many reasons people want you to feel outraged… outrage drives traffic, outrage generates clicks, likes, comments, search rankings, mountains of ad revenue and allows them to exploit political opportunities endlessly.

But it’s said that the most dangerous person in the world is the one who’s happy. Because she can’t be manipulated into buying anything, she doesn’t need anyone’s approval, and she has no reason to hate her neighbor.

She’s dangerous because she’s mentally free. She’s dangerous because she can’t be controlled.

That’s why I believe no other issue confronting us today is more important than our anger, collectively and individually. In a time when outrage is so widespread and a rapidly growing trillion dollar currency, to be untroubled is a revolutionary act.

To be master of oneself is the greatest rebellion.



*Also published in edited form on Modern Stoicism.

Modern Stress Reduction Techniques Using Newton’s 3rd Law

Stress Reduction

My favorite model for stress reduction comes from a visual perception trick using the American Flag. Try this exercise with me and I promise you’ll learn some powerful mind and body insights you probably weren’t aware of before.

Get a white piece of paper or choose a white wall in your room. After you stare at the black dot in the middle of the flag for 1 minute, you’re going to look back to the white paper or wall. And when you do, make sure to blink a few times….


Now go. I’ll wait.

Opposition Theory In Action

Wasn’t that like ah-mazing, life-changing stuff?! Ok, so you saw the American flag in red, white and blue. Big surprise.

But WHY it happens is what’s so revealing to me. In 1878, after-images were explained by German physiologist Ewald Hering through the opponent-process theory. Basically, if you look at the colors, its wavelengths excite the corresponding neurons sensing them in your eye.

Now get ready here it comes…

Soon after the neurons become excited, opposing neurons and chemicals reverse this process. The opposing neurons and chemicals inhibit the excited neurons and the inhibiting neurons, in turn, become more and more active over time.

And when you finally look over at the white wall, the opposing colors are dominant in your neurology… blue becomes red… black becomes white… yellow becomes blue.

Presto chango!


Newton’s Third Law stated, “for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.

But it’s not just physics. The same holds true when it comes to our basic function. If we flex our bicep, what stops us from flexing our tricep? If we move our right leg forward, what stops us from engaging our right glutes and quads at the same time? And what would happen if we tried to step forward with our right leg and ALL muscles in that leg engaged?

Without the ability to stop opposing muscles, we wouldn’t be able to walk or move. Not in any coordinated way at least, because motion requires a single directional force and when another force pushes in the opposite way, movement stops. The effort is still there, but the movement forward isn’t.

If our bodies evolved without the ability to oppose, or inhibit, our stimulated neurons then we wouldn’t be able to see either. Every color we visually sense has a component of inhibition so that we can see the next color. Every rose we sense is then inhibited so that we can smell the steaming garbage that inevitably comes next.

And every THOUGHT that fires a series of neurons in our brain also fires a series of inhibiting chemicals so we’re allowed to think our next thought….unless it’s Taylor Swift – then it’ll be in your head forever. Sorry.

When the nervous system loses it’s ability to inhibit in any part of the body, it can lead to many disorders like Epilepsy, Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, or Cervical Dystonia which I wrote about before.

Just like you can’t listen to beautiful music without the silence between the notes, the same must happen internally for us to have any coordinated response. Inhibition happens on a neurological and chemical level and it evolved in parallel with all our sense, motor and thought function from the time we were little protozoan that once depended on a single, slimy tail to move left and right so we can swim.

It’s part of the foundation of our ability to do anything. Simply put, without the ability to stop, our life can’t move forward.


Lesson 1: Use Physical Inhibition For Stress Reduction
Stressed Kitty
Nailed it!

We’re all ruled by fears and desires…but their initial spark always starts with a thought. Without the fear, without the desire, there is no chain reaction that follows.

And if you’ve been following the logic so far, then you understand thoughts are inhibited at the neural level too and this is done regularly and automatically throughout the day.

But is there a way to consciously control this? The (very) short answer is yes.

In 1958 a dedicated follower of Freud revolutionized our understanding of managing the fear response with his book Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition. Building on decades of his own research as well as others, Dr. Joseph Wolpe began what would become modern behavioral research.

For him, reciprocal inhibition isn’t about the emotional suppressions Freud talked about but rather a simple mechanical understanding of learned behavior at the basic neurological level. Dr. Wolpe also called it systematic desensitization but it’s been given other names since then such as de-conditioning, counter-conditioning and finally exposure therapy, which is most popular today.

When Dr. Wolpe treated patients of any fear trigger, the first step was always the training of progressive relaxation. Once the patient was very relaxed, he had them imagine the fear trigger in various contexts, gradually exposing them more and more mentally. Over time, the fear response was desensitized, curing over 80% of his patients from neurosis.

Almost all successful treatment of fear therapy now practiced involves a conditioning process linking the main fear stimulus to a known counter response.

Dr. Wolpe and other scientists found there were physically reliable ways to elicit an oppositional response to fear such as relaxation, self-restraint, confidence, and even sexual arousal (!). So if you’ve long suspected that furiously jacking off was an appropriate response to your fear of public speaking, then rest easy dude because you were totally right about that. Just don’t do it while you’re speaking in public.

Interestingly, eating was also found to be another oppositional response to fear. Since we’re usually not being chased by a bear when we’re eating, the body has evolved to understand that we must be safe from any dangers if we’re able to take time to eat and it automatically shuts down neurological defensive systems to aid the digestion process, which takes a large amount of our energy. Eating relaxes us.

This might explain why so many of us reach for that late night cheese snack when faced with anxious feelings of tomorrow’s presentation. And if we’re stressed enough, our digestion may slow enough so we lose our appetite.

Many of our fears and anxieties are entangled with bad eating habits simply because it’s a reliable way to sooth ourselves… but eating celery can do the same job.

But on the off chance you DON’T want to furiously yank Mr. Thriller to overcome your fear of public speaking, here’s a list of ways to use your body for stress reduction now:

  • Use deep diaphragmatic breathing to slow your pulse rate and respiration
  • Lie down in semi-supine position and practice progressive relaxation on your own or with an audio guide for 20 minutes
  • Eat a healthy snack
  • Or eat lunch and then lie down to practice progressive relaxation
  • Tense your muscles as much as possible for 30 seconds then release
  • Practice speaking, moving and smiling confidently
  • Practice releasing muscle tension on each exhale. It should feel like the breath falls out of your body without hinderance.
  • Move more slowly or decide to pause for 1-3 minutes
  • Exercise

You don’t have to drink alcohol, take sleeping pills or take anxiety drugs to relax. All those things are just forms of tranquilizers. That’s why they’re called downers.

And you don’t have to spend a lot of money to go on long vacations to relieve stress. You can learn to consciously relax your body and therefore your mind, right now.

With enough conditioning to the chosen relaxation response, our fear becomes altered at the neurological level. Eventually, the fear links in the brain goes to sleep and can remain dormant indefinitely. Viola! Fear is unlearned…and that terrible thing that happened to you when you were 6 years old? It doesn’t matter.

Suck it Freud!


Lesson 2: Use Mental Inhibition For Stress Reduction
Stress Reduction Mofo
A Stress Reduction Mofo

In the late 1800’s, a Shakespearean actor struggled with a chronically hoarse voice, which no doctor could diagnose or cure. After a long struggle of self-observation and experimentation, F. Matthias Alexander came to an unsettling but clear conclusion: his voice issue was based on his desire to speak.

When he wanted to speak, he noticed a subtle response began, similar to stage fright. Except it was a habit where anytime he decided to speak at all, his head pulled back, his larynx would be depressed, breathing constricted and the airway squeezed.

But the approach he developed to cure it was a slightly different than Dr. Wolpe. Alexander concluded, “it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” In this case, stimulus = desire.

So his desire to speak is what interfered with his speaking. That desire led to an unconscious and automatic physical habit that prevented his efforts – and while he couldn’t prevent the physical reaction, he could prevent his initial desire.

In other words, he’d think about speaking – and then he’d immediately desire NOT to speak.

Can an opposing desire really inhibit another desire? I pondered this question for quite a while, spoke with a few experts and did my own research before reaching my own conclusion: yes it can.

Alexander’s technique relied greatly on this approach and ultimately cured himself with it. And like Dr. Wolpe, he also relied on similar methods of progressive relaxation along with incremental exposure to inhibit his unwanted speaking habits over time.

So both Alexander and Wolpe maintained that unwanted desires and fears should be systematically desensitized through a physical and mental approach. Because they’re both irrevocably linked.

What about inhibiting anger? Even before Sir Issac Newton, the ancient Stoics developed practices that fit this model nicely and flies in the face of Freudian psychology.

Instead of searching your childhood for your source of chronic anger and expressing your repressed emotions with a psychoanalyst until a catharsis “frees” you, Seneca believed in using reason to tame the savage beast.

To him, anger was a temporary insanity that exists as the desire to punish. And if an angry woman finds nothing to repay her suffering, then she’s likely to turn on herself to satisfy her anger’s desire to destroy something.

Seneca reasoned that anything useful that’s motivated by anger is better done without the impulsiveness of anger. Even the hunter doesn’t kill out of anger, but with careful deliberation. Likewise, the warrior doesn’t kill his enemy out of hatred but to simply defend his homeland.

“What are we to say to the argument that, if anger were a good thing it would attach itself to all of the most noble men? Yet the most irascible of creatures are infants, old men, and sick people. Every weakling is naturally prone to complaint.

Through a list of reasoned arguments against the case of anger’s usefulness, Seneca seeks to install in his followers the desire to not be angry.

Rather than working to discover the origin of your anger and the reason it started, Stoics didn’t care why you were angry… the only cared about why you SHOULDN’T be angry. In fact, Seneca detailed so many reasons against it that it filled a whole book.

And before there was Seneca, Buddhists taught that by practicing compassion for others and yourself, anger couldn’t exist simultaneously. So their prescription for anger was to practice it’s opposing emotion of compassion because the “light” of compassion would cast away anger’s “darkness”.

Other parallels in Buddhism exist with Stoicism, such as the practice of patience, non-striving and equanimity (indifference to the Stoics). Now I don’t want to gloss over thousands of years of philosophy and psychotherapy here… but I’m going to gloss over thousands of years of philosophy and psychotherapy.

So here’s a summarized list of healthy oppositional desires you can practice, taken from Buddhism, Stoicism, Wolpe and modern research for stress reduction:

  • Nonjudgmental curiosity
  • Self-Compassion and compassion for others
  • Gratitude or Altruism
  • Patience, Letting Go or Non-Striving
  • Equanimity, Indifference or Non-Attachment
  • Contemplating the negative consequences of undesired behavior and the many benefits of positive habits to develop wanted motivation
  • Desire to not desire (separate from the above as specific to a trigger)
  • Contemplate your desired identity and the pride you’d feel with new thoughts, actions or lifestyle (identity shifts are needed for significant habits)
  • Imagine a jug of warm oil being poured from the top of your head to through the bottoms of your feet, with each muscle it touches, imagine tension melts away
  • Visualize a peaceful scene by the beach or a lake at sunrise or sunset

Echoing Buddhism, Stoics also recommended practicing happiness even as you feel anger. Seneca advised smiling, speaking softly and kindly to others in an effort to reverse dangerous passions. He recommended his students slow down and take a long pause before proceeding in a hasty or rash manner.

As we know today, acting in a happy way can send similar neurological signals to the brain and affect our moods positively. Today’s scientific research has well established the mind-body link. It’s no magic bullet but it’s another tool in our arsenal that we can use to directly or indirectly take power back in our hands.

You can even practice desires as intention throughout the day. Even if you don’t change anything you do, having a new intention for the hour, day or week sets a new direction for your thoughts. Those thoughts change how you feel and it influences your relationship with whatever you’re doing.

What did philosophers mean to “live like it’s your last day on earth”? Sorry to break the news, but it’s not about spending all your money on hookers and champagne. It’s a mental trick to develop gratitude (…that’s sustainable). And it makes it less likely that you’ll waste your time on meaningless tasks.

Take control of your daily focus today. Pick any of the above to practice and see what happens.

Lesson 3: Use Benchmarking For Stress Reduction
Stress Reduction - Benchmarking
Um, I think my contact lens just fell…

Did you ever wish you could wave a magic wand and have the ultimate emotional mastery to be completely calm, fearless and happy no matter what happens in your life or how bad it gets? If you get easily stressed like me, it sounds impossible.

But several researchers have proved something like that is possible, using fMRI results. In his book, Matthieu Ricard who’s dubbed the “happiest man in the world” presents Richard Davidson’s data on prefrontal cortex activity.

While there’s no center of happiness in the brain, people with dominant activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex were associated with positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, altruism, and compassion. But those with a more active prefrontal cortex on the right side of the brain experienced more anxiety, fear, and feelings of unhappiness in their brain scans.

But the most interesting fMRI results found that the brain activity of practiced meditators was significantly higher in the left prefrontal cortex while they were meditating on compassion. In fact, the “activity in the left prefrontal cortex swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity.”

Want even more impressive research?

One of the top emotion scientists, Paul Ekman, studied thousands of people’s micro-expressions to determine how much control we really have over the startle response. Along with researchers at the University of California, they simulated a gunshot sound going off beside the ear, which they considered “the maximal threshold of human tolerance.” (sounds fun!)

He then monitored their body movements, pulse, perspiration, and skin temperature. Hundreds of subjects were told they’d hear a loud explosion within 5 minutes and were asked to suppress the natural startle response to their best ability and if possible, to the point of being imperceptible.

Previous research established elite police sharpshooters as the best benchmark. Their experience of firing guns every day was helpful exposure to this end – but it still wasn’t enough to stop them from flinching.

But do you know who could? Meditators.

The most successful were experienced meditators that practiced open presence awareness during the test. With one particular meditator, while there was an increase in pulse, perspiration and blood pressure, not one muscle moved.

With some astonishment, Ekman observed, “when he tries to repress the startle, it almost disappears. We’ve never found anyone who could do that. Nor have any other researchers. This is a spectacular accomplishment. We don’t have any idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress the startle reflex.”

This is God-like control.

But according to the subject, he wasn’t trying to actively control the flinch reflex, he described it as resting in the present moment where the bang simply occurs as if “I were hearing it from a distance.”

In other words, by practicing open awareness, his focus wasn’t attached to any one thing and he was able to accept anything that arose in his awareness with equanimity.

While these are all impressive feats of mind-body control, the point I want to make is that you can’t just decide to meditate one day and suddenly command God-like resistance to fear, anxiety or anger. It takes years of practice.

Our neurology tends to betray our pursuit of happiness. For survival reasons, our brains have evolved with a negativity bias that makes us overly responsive to real or imagined perceived threats. And the key in that statement is perceived. It doesn’t happen overnight but by now you know there are many ways to balance, neutralize and reverse the natural gravity of our fears and desires.

Those who experience positive feelings of calm, love, contentment, laughter or compassionate altruism, are less likely to be stressed when things don’t go their way. Practicing calm is cumulative. If you do it enough it becomes your natural baseline state.

Today’s neuroplasticity research backs this claim. If you operate in a world where you often feel anxious, worried and stressed out, you become more and more likely to get stressed out when things go wrong. 

Stress Reduction - Teddy
I’m having a lot of fun with this.

Research has shown that negative emotional responses can linger in the body long after the events that trigger them. Sometimes for hours, even days. And if the alarm bells in your body are still ringing, the alerted mind becomes ready to spot any potential dangers, making it more likely to interpret smaller threats as greater than they really are – even if imagined. These are called associative triggers.

Our preexisting state of calm or stress alters the threshold that any new trigger will develop.

This is a fancy way of saying that when you’re alone at night watching a horror movie, those scary sounds that convince you a trained murderer is creeping in your house are the secondary triggers. If the fear is strong enough or if it happens enough times (or both), then any similar sounds can become permanent triggers for you, even without the scary movie.

The stronger the fear, the higher the state of alert your body will be and the more associative triggers may develop. For those with chronic pain, where there’s always alarm bells ringing, social anxiety is typically a secondary trigger. In a world where everyone has at least some insecurities, any imperceptible slight or gesture can become cause for alarm.. until eventually, any interaction causes overwhelming fear and anxiety… which of course, sets the stage for even more chronic pain.

As more and more triggers develop, the world of pain becomes bigger and bigger. People who live in a state of chronic fear or anxiety are living in a shrinking world of pain.

It’s not hard to see we all tend to live smaller than we really are. But that’s why I’m here to tell you that it’s important to manage your baseline of comfort. You can take control of your fear response, counter it and push back. Even if you don’t know what’s causing your fear, you can still set yourself up for success.

Both physically and mentally, the best defense is a good offense.

Interestingly enough, the ancient stoics also developed a similar therapy, called practicing poverty. They would imagine losing a lost one, losing their fortunes, losing their health or anything they considered dear in their lives. The key is that they practiced poverty before it happened.

Not only did it help them be more grateful for what they had, but when misfortune struck, it wasn’t completely unexpected to them. It acted like a vaccine against sorrow. In many ways the mind is no different than a muscle.

Seneca told his followers that you should train your mind like an athlete trains his body. To be an olympian, an athlete trains his muscles before the games and seeks sparring partners that will not go easy on him so he can refine his skill.

As you get used to feelings of calm on a daily basis, it becomes your new benchmark of experience. That new benchmark makes smaller “disturbances in the force” that much easier for you to see and manage right away. If you’re an investor and the volatility index is averaging 10% for the past year but jumps to 25% one day, you better believe you’ll notice it right away.

That’s the power of benchmarking.

It brings more awareness because you become more sensitive to disturbing thoughts and feelings you may have been numb to before. It’s a positive feedback loop.

If you’ve ever trained physically for a long time and then stopped suddenly, you know how different your body feels after a short period. And when you miss feeling strong, you’re likely to go back to training…but you’d never know how weak you were if you weren’t so fit at some point, right?

When All Else Fails, Stop Everything! 
Stress Reduction for Reactions
Seriously, just stop.

This is related to everything before so it’s not really a fourth lesson. But it deserves extra focus. It’s the reason meditation is usually done sitting or lying still. Because when the muscles stop or relax, the mind usually follows. So give yourself a break.

When I was a broker, the top salesman in the company used to always walk back and forth in the hallways all day talking into his headset, until one day I asked him “why do you like to walk so much?” He told me, it helps him think.

Yes, moving helps us think. But if you want to stop thinking, then stop moving. Slow down, pause, close your eyes. The less stimulation, the easier it will be to settle your mind.

Have you ever seen parents who can enjoy eating a strawberry but to their kids, eating strawberries might as well be like eating cardboard paper? It’s because those kids are used to eating candies, chocolates and coca colas that have ten times more sugar than a stupid little strawberry. Their tongues are desensitized.

Our thoughts work the same way. When we slow down and stop, our minds calm down. Each thought is like a drop that ripples through the surface of a lake. But if enough time passes and there are no ripples to disturb the water, then the surface settles and becomes like a mirror, reflecting each moment without distortion… without the stories in our heads.

Given time, our senses reset and so does our nervous system. The constant inner dialogue we all have that’s prone to negative rumination eventually fades into the distance so we can see what’s in front of us anew. We can smell the proverbial rose and appreciate it better.

Some people turn to extremes like skydiving, skiing black diamonds or rock climbing to get out of their heads because it demands all of their focus. But if that’s the only way you can be focused in the present then the beauty of everyday life is passing you by.

Like a drug addict chasing the dragon, more and more sensation is required just to feel anything. Your minimum baseline of sensitivity grows ever higher and higher until numbness feels comfortably normal.

You don’t have to drop extreme sports to be mindful. My point is that it’s what you do every day that counts. It’s the string of little moments, the subtle sensations of life that predestine your resilience to handle stress and anxiety. You might think they don’t matter but they do.

You can pause or stop yourself anytime during the day to stop unmanageable feelings from developing and experience them with courage. Then you can work on calming your body and mind using any of the methods above.

In mindfulness, this is sometimes called the sacred pause. It’s considered a spiritual act because it allows us to discover ourselves and move beyond habitual thought. It’s the first step in acceptance that tells our brains “this isn’t a threat to me” and creates a space for increased awareness and calm.

Sometimes pausing is the hardest thing to do but that’s when we often need it most. That’s when we feel most out of control and in the grip of “dangerous passions.” Our ability to stop drives a wedge between our initial thoughts and the feelings and actions that might follow it. It breaks the cycle of reaction and puts you back in control.


As someone who lives with chronic pain, I’m far from an olympian mentally or physically, but I practice progressive relaxation twice a day. In the morning, when my body is most relaxed, I take advantage of this time in bed to mentally scan my body for any tensions and practice inhibiting the muscles as deeply as possible. After about 20 minutes, my musculature usually settles into a relaxed state and the calm carries over as I start the day.

Between breakfast and lunch, my body is usually starting to freak out again and I can feel the fear starting to grip around my mind. I then lay on the ground with a couple books under my head for another 20 minutes of progressive relaxation. I scan my body for tension, slowing my breath on each exhale and reset my baseline again.

I’d love to tell you this fixes everything for the rest of the day, but it doesn’t. What it does do for me, however, is prevent a very bad day from happening. It prevents my body from becoming an uncontrollable muscular pretzel and it prevents my inner mind from screaming “I CAN’T HANDLE THIS SHIT FOR ANOTHER SECOND WTF!?!” …before crawling into bed with my microwavable heating pad (and ideally with my adult sized carebear).

That’s what used to happen as soon as I woke up and grew increasingly more likely the rest of the day. That was my old baseline. That’s how I lived for many months. But now I kill the monster while it’s small.

And that’s how it is with physical and mental stress. If you want to be less susceptible to fear, anxiety and stress then you have to train your body and your mind against it.

I rotate various methods of meditation depending on how I feel. Doing it reduces accumulating stress and provides a backstop against anything that might have happened during the day or my own inner chatter. It resets me neurologically no matter what happens.

And like the Stoics and Buddhists, sometimes I practice compassion for others and imagining what it would be like to lose them. It increases my gratitude for those I love and I’m more likely to be present. (Self-compassion comes in really handy after a night of heavy drinking and the tsunami of shame and regret that follows.)

So now I think I’ll take my own advice and stop here. And like the ending of a Jerry Springer episode, here’s my final thought:


You can train your mind today to be stronger and calmer tomorrow. But train every day if you want to build a foundation strong enough to weather all the earthquakes, storms and forest fires that are an inevitable part of our lives. We can’t always prevent bad things from happening to us but there are many ways we can change our relationship with them.

When it comes to stress reduction, set yourself up for success. No, we can’t stop ourselves from feeling the initial feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. That’s just being human. But we can build calm on top of it. We can use it to teach our minds and bodies to be stronger in the face of it and build up our courage, brick by brick.

It may not happen overnight. It may take days, weeks, months or even longer. But with enough time and practice, we can reclaim our inner peace. After all, it’s in our very nature.

The rest is up to us.

Until next time… take care of yourself. And each other.