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Friday, April 5, 2013

The Search for Meaning

11:37 AM Posted by Tiffany Taft , , , ,
When I was in grad school, I read "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl.  If you haven't heard of him, Dr. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist that was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic in 1942 with his wife and parents.  He spent time in Auschwitz, where his mother and brother died. Dr. Frankl was separated from his wife when he was moved to a satellite camp of Dachau (Turkheim) while she was sent to a different camp, where she later died.

In "Man's Search for Meaning" Dr. Frankl tells the story of his life in Nazi concentration camps in vivid detail, but what is so striking about his writing is how he explored one seemingly simple concept - attitude - and how this often made the difference between life and death in the camp.  Those who were able to accept their circumstances as beyond their control while seeking some form of meaning in their experiences fared far better than those who fell into depression and despair.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

Last week I wrote about a concept called "Emotion Focused Coping" which can be useful when we face a problem without a solution, something that people living with chronic medical illness often face.  We can do so much to improve our health and treat our symptoms, but there are some aspects of chronic illness that are beyond our control.  Trying to solve unsolvable problems can drive one batty (that's a technical term).

A third type of coping is something called Meaning Focused Coping.  While Dr. Frankl didn't come up with this term, it embodies his perspectives that came from his experiences in the camps.  When we face a negative situation, we find enriching, meaningful elements in them and focus our attention there.  For some it's appreciating the little things in life.  For others it may involve advocacy efforts or blogging about their condition.  There is no right way to engage in meaning focused coping.  The point is to find meaning in your situation, no matter how bad it may seem.  Preliminary research suggests that people who use meaning focused coping strategies have better long term health outcomes.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Yes, I'm telling you that finding meaning in your illness will help you feel better.  However, meaning focused coping is probably the most challenging of the 3 strategies I've talked about.  So how the heck do you do it?
  • Find some benefit from your illness.  Since you were diagnosed, are you more patient?  Have you learned to slow down in life?  Do you appreciate the people in your life who are truly there for you? No matter how small it may seem, there is usually at least one positive change that happens when we're forced to live with an illness.  For me, I've met some amazing people because of Crohn's disease - my practice partner, Steph, Andrea & Megan from The Great Bowel Movement, my Camp Oasis family to name a few.
  • Adapt your goals.  Lets face it, having an illness can throw a wrench in a lot of our plans.  Evaluate your goals in light of your new circumstances and make adjustments.  It's OK to give up on goals that may no longer be feasible and substitute them with viable alternatives.  Forgive yourself for having to make these changes if it feels like you're giving up too easily.
  • Reorder your priorities.  Things that are important in life move up and down the priority ladder all the time.  You can do a little exercise here by drawing a ladder on a piece of paper with several rungs.  On each rung, write down your priorities before you were diagnosed.  Repeat this process for your life as it is today.
  • Don't discount the little things.  Yes, it's a bit cliche.  But it's true.  Take time out of each day to stop thinking about anything but the present moment.  Turn off your cell phone and stare out the window for 10 minutes, taking in the scene in front of you and not thinking about all the things you need to do.  This is a little strategy we call Mindfulness Meditation.  You can read more on that here.
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions."

With that, nothing brings about a sense of meaning like the weekend.  Happy Friday!

Dr. T