Hope in Hard Times: 2

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

IN RECENT times, people have been feeling great stress. So many people have become unemployed or are worried about losing their jobs, and so many people are struggling under personal debt and mortgage payments. When the recession first started, people tried to cope by putting on a brave face and hoping that things would get better or “return to normal” soon. However, in the past few weeks, there has been a collective realisation that the problems are grave and that we all face collective economic hardship. Even people not directly affected by losses have become anxious and stressed in the face of an uncertain future.

For some people, the stress has been overwhelming, and there has been a big increase in depression and anxiety. We have all read recently about tragic cases of suicide, representing so many individuals who experience such hopelessness that they see no other way out. One of the saddest aspects of these tragedies is how these individuals cut themselves off from the support of their family and friends and don’t realise their importance to them.

Though we are all not led to such extremes of despair, I think we all need to attend to our own mental health and to care for one another in these difficult times. In my own clinical practice, I am always surprised at how people cope differently with adversity or challenging life events. Some people become traumatised and damaged by what has happened to them and can become embittered or angry or depressed, even for years after the original events. Other people are able to move on from the trauma and not let it damage them in the same way; in some cases they’re able to learn from it and even turn it into a positive force in their life.

Modern psychologists are very interested in the concept of resilience; they want to understand what qualities and protective factors allow an individual to cope with trauma and adversity. Many different things seem to make a difference, and lead to positive coping. Coping individuals tend to take an active rather than a passive stance towards their difficulties. They are much more likely to take action and to focus on “doing something” in order to combat problems and to make their life better.

Coping individuals also take appropriate responsibility for what has happened, making sure to be balanced and compassionate. They might admit their part in creating the problems they face (for example, over-borrowing in the Celtic Tiger), but don’t use this as a licence to berate or beat themselves up in depression.

Specifically, being able to cope involves being able to think constructively about your circumstances, whether this is adopting a spiritual perspective on what is happening or discovering a “silver lining” or new opportunity in a changed situation. Such a silver lining could be simple things like having more time to pursue ordinary pleasures such as gardening, exercise, spending time with friends or voluntary work.

In his great work, Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Victor Frankl describes his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and shares his observations of how differently people coped there. Some were overwhelmed and descended into despair; others were better able to survive, depending on how they responded to circumstances imposed upon them.

For Frankl, the crucial factor was making positive choices no matter how much your personal freedom was curtailed. After the war, he went on to develop his therapeutic method which involved helping people create meaning no matter how difficult their circumstances. It is this meaning that provides the person with a positive reason to continue living.

In the future, how we cope with the new conditions of contracting resources and curtailed freedom will depend not only on our collective resilience and adaptability but also on our ability to make sense of and find meaning in our new circumstances.

As Nietzsche says: “ Those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, December 2010. Read Part 1. Read Part 3 of this series.
John Sharry has contributed a chapter to Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming Economic and Environmental Collapse, edited by Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon. See www.feasta.org