Dr. Kevin Vost | Catholicism, Fitness & Psychology

Dr. Kevin Vost | Catholicism, Fitness & Psychology

ABOUT OUR GUEST

Kevin Vost is the author of more than a dozen books with more in press, bringing his knowledge of classical Greco-Roman and medieval scholastic philosophy, modern cognitive psychology, and High Intensity Strength Training to bear on issues of Catholic catechetics, apologetics, saint’s biographies, spiritual growth, and physical fitness. He’s also written about the links between Stoicism and Christianity in his book, The Porch and the Cross. 

Dr Vost holds a Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) degree from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago with internship and dissertation work at the SIU School of Medicine’s Alzheimer Center’s Memory and Aging Clinic. He has taught psychology and gerontology (the scientific study of old age) at Aquinas College, the University of Illinois, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. Kevin has also served as a research review committee member for American Mensa, a society promoting the scientific study of human intelligence, and as an advisory board member for the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainers.

GUEST LINKS

  • Thomas Aquinas was highly influenced by the works of Seneca (and possibly other Stoics). We can see this influence in his works on anger, gratitude and clemency to name a few. 
  • There are many cases of prominent theological thinkers pulling inspiration from the Stoics. 
  • The Gospels say that the first commandment is to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbour as yourself. The Stoics provide us the mechanisms and instruments to do just that. For example, it’s hard to experience love when you’re fearful or angry or spiteful, and the Stoics teach us much about how we can tame these unnecessary and potentially harmful emotions. 
  • Christian virtue is often seen as bringing our own emotions and actions in line with right reason. This is very much in line with Stoic philosophy and theology. 
  • Practices like evening reflections and morning meditations are just some of the Stoic exercises that can add to a Christian’s routine. 

  • St. John Climacus was one of the early Church fathers who laid out the process by which one might find the strength to act better in moments of weakness. 
  • The Stoics also offer much guidance when it comes to acting more virtuously. Seneca, for example, talked about the porto-emotions, which are the natural physiological responses that we have in life. These would include everything from anger, lust, ecstasy, sadness, fear and everything in-between. These are not within our control because they simply happen as a result of natural processes. The thing that we can control is the action of slowing down and thinking about how we’d like our actions to respond to those natural processes. For example, you feel anger because someone says something that you perceive to be rude. You cannot control your initial “proto-emotional response”, but you can control how you act. 
  • Epictetus encourages us to pause in moments of weakness and think not only about what could happen now, but also to think about all of the possible effects of our decision now. Will this choice lead to positive outcomes later on? Or will this start a chain of events that would be bad for you and those around you?
  • The physiological reactions that we have toward events are almost instantaneous, and so we can forgive ourselves for feeling certain emotions when situations present themselves. 
  • We can train ourselves to pause after that initial habitual reaction so that we can reflect on what’s happened and how we could act better in response. A simple word like “stop” used as a trigger for thought might be all that a person needs in order to gain control in the moment of heated emotions. Another solution is to count to ten, or to pause and think before you act. 
  • Develop the habit, through a morning or nighttime reflection, or evaluating your various interactions and responses throughout the day. 
  • Practice is the key. See your moral improvement as a long-term pursuit and as something to be built into your habitual responses.
  • Stoicism has been highly documented for its efficacy by modern psychological standards. 
  • When researching for a book on loneliness, Dr. Vost found that the most effective approach for those who suffer loneliness is treating the person’s “maladaptive social cognitions.” This basically means helping them to cope better with social situations and to restructure their internal perceptions about people. This is also known as “cognitive psychotherapy” - changing the way that you interpret the world. 
  • Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive Behavioural Therapy, is well known to have derived much inspiration from the Stoics. 
  • The creator of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck, was also known to have vastly based his approach on Stoic theories of human behaviour (mostly from Epictetus). 
  • The core idea of these therapies is based on Epictetus’ quote: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” Basically, we can change our perceptions of events, people and situations in our lives, and therefore we can change what we see and how we feel. 
    • Albert Ellis was a psychotherapist who was trained in psychoanalysis, mostly influenced by Sigmund Freud.
    • The key idea of this type of therapy was that if you were suffering as an adult then it most likely had to do with something that happened to you as a child. The psychotherapist would try to tap into your unconscious mind and learn about your dreams/childhood memories so that they can get to the root of your problem. The focus was very much on externals, as in the things that happened in your outer world. 
    • In the field of psychology, the behaviourists held most of the sway at this time. People like Ivan Pavlov (known for his dog salivation experiment), John Watson, and B. F. Skinner were popular for their work, and as such the view was very much on the outer world and how that affects our inner world. 
    • This view of psychology has held its weight in our modern culture as we often attribute our negative feelings and responses to external events, touting phrases like, “You made me angry,” or, “I’m scared because of (x)”. It’s a game of stimulus and response.  
    • Ellis took the view (based on Epictetus’ works) that although we absolutely are influenced by childhood trauma and external events, it’s actually what we keep on telling ourselves about those events that makes the biggest difference in how we feel and act. Therefore, if you can train yourself to look at the situation differently and to tell yourself a different story then you can remove a lot of that trauma. 
    • Ellis uses the ABC model for understanding how to change the way we feel about external events. He gives the following example: You’re on a bus and a heavy man treads on your toe while passing by. He says nothing, and simply sits down, and now you’re left with a throbbing toe. With the standard “stimulus-response” model it would be seen that you’ve had the stimulus (man standing on your toe) and that this will lead to your response (whatever it is). Ellis changes this and uses the following formula to help the person who was harmed:


    1. Stands for “Activating Event”. This is when the man stands on your toe. 
    2. Stands for “Belief”. This is the story that you tell yourself about what happened. E.g. “What an arsehole,” or “Maybe he’s blind and he simply didn’t see my foot.”
    3. Stands for “Consequence”. This is your reaction to the event. For example, being mad and saying something or dealing with your pain quietly. 


    Ellis then adds the following to the formula after (B): 


    (D) Stands for “Dispute”, meaning that you can dispute your initial belief about the situation. Maybe it’s not as bad as you think?

    (E) Stands for a new “Emotional Response” once you’ve reevaluated your initial perceptions and beliefs about the situation.


    • As you can see, this whole process is based around the theory that we can change our perceptions and tell ourselves different stories about the events in our lives, which will lead to better responses and therefore better outcomes. 
  • All of the Stoics at some point have mentioned the importance of keeping the body healthy. The body is the vessel which we inhabit and so it only makes sense that we would want it to be clean and healthy. 
  • Musonius Rufus talks about how virtue and a healthy body walk hand in hand. Proper training leads to better health, and temperance in our desires of food, drugs and exercise will lead to a well-rounded health approach. 
  • The Stoics also taught that a sick or unhealthy body would be bad for us because it would inevitably lead to a lowered capacity to do our various duties. 
  • Seneca discussed the idea that there are certain exercises that are brief and intense that will wear your body out in a short amount of time. This is basically HIIT training (High Intensity Interval Training) or HIT training (High Intensity Training). Seneca said that we should engage in these types of exercises and then return to what is ultimately important - the mind and virtuous living.
  • Epictetus references Milo of Croton (a famous Greek wrestler known for lifting a bull) and says that just because he cannot be a Milo does not mean that he shouldn’t take care of his body. 
  • Epictetus also teaches that our training must match our goal. So we should aim at matching the right kinds of exercises to the right kinds of physical needs. For example, a marathon runner will require different training to that of an olympic lifter. 
  • The example used by Epictetus which contrasts a sprinter’s training versus a long distance runner’s training has also been used to discuss the benefits of modern training. We now know that someone who needs explosive strength, power or speed should train differently to someone who needs endurance.
  • Stoics also emphasised results over posturing. For example, Epictetus would say “show me your shoulders” and explain that it was not the weights he wanted to see, but what the weights have done for you and your body. 
  • ‘Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights.’ –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4
  • ‘Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind.’ –  Seneca, Epistle 15
  • ‘And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…’ –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19
  • ‘Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life.’ - Musonius Rufus 
  • ‘The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different.’ - Epictetus 
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  • Read “Spark” by John Ratey. 
  • The brain/mind and body are connected to such a degree that physical exercise is helpful even for our cognitive ability.
  • There is no known cure for alzheimers at the moment, and there is no guarantee to keep you from getting it. The general rule of thumb for physical and cognitive ability is “use it or lose it.” Simply put, it’s important to exercise the body and brain in order to keep them from decaying. 
  • For those who are over 50 it’s more important than ever to begin a regime of exercise, both cognitive and physical. This is one of the most well-documented preventative cures against multiple diseases of decay.