Exam stress-busting advice from Seneca

By: Christine Greenlee

Seneca (c. BC 4 – AD 65) is famously known as the Emperor Nero’s adviser. Less known are his writings which consist of both drama and prose works. Seneca had a strong interest in moral philosophy and he was educated in the school of the Sextii – a school which incorporated a good amount of Stoicism into their discussions. In Seneca’s writings, it is often evident that he believes in the individual’s ability to remain self-controlled and unemotional when overcoming opposition.

Although Seneca never addressed the issue of exam stress in his letters, he did write a letter ‘On groundless fears’ to Lucilius. The following is an exerpt from this letter:

‘Fortune has often in the past got the upper hand of you, and yet you have not surrendered, but have leaped up and stood your ground still more eagerly. For manliness gains much strength by being challenged; nevertheless, if you approve, allow me to offer some additional safeguards by which you may fortify yourself.  There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. (…)
What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.  Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all.  We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.’

The translation is by Richard M. Gummere from the Loeb version of Seneca’s Moral Epistles (1917).

Seneca's suicide - from the Chronicles of Nuremberg
Seneca’s suicide – from the Chronicles of Nuremberg

Seneca’s letter hopefully reminds both anxious students and staff of the risk of worrying and anticipating issues too readily. Some of the problems we fear might not even occur, as Seneca points out. Whether your problem consists of an upcoming exam, or a forced suicide as was the case for Seneca, you can always choose to face it in a controlled and collected way.

Good luck with exams!

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