Saturday, August 22, 2015

Searching for Meaning When You are Chronically Ill

Why me? I can’t do what I did, so what good am I? I’m a drain on my family. The litany that so many affected by chronic illness can and do recite can go on and on resulting in feelings of anxiousness, fearfulness, frustration, and depression. Not exactly healing tools.

This past week, several items crossed my desk which encouraged me to once again write about how a sense of meaning makes it not only possible to get up in the morning, but also to enjoy life no matter its twists and turns.

The first was a Wise Brain Bulletin Lessons for the Healthy From the Land of the Sick  by Toni Berhard author of  several books including her most recent one “How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.” One of the guiding principles of her work is that mindfulness, compassion and equanimity are critical to a life of well-being.

The other was finding Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning available online in PDF and audio formats. Published in 1946, its been considered to be among the “ten most influential books in the United States,” is one of the most popular books among prison inmates today and even has been read by celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon after his recent injury.

A Jewish psychiatrist/neurologist, Frankl developed the theory of “healing through meaning”, logotherapy, while a prisoner in the concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Counseling fellow prisoners, many of whom were suicidal, he believed that striving for meaning, not pleasure or power, is what keeps us alive.

At first blush, these two writers could appear at odds, however they work well together.

Last week I posted Cut to the Chase: How to Stop Obsessive Thinking About Illness and I realize now I need to go back and include Berhard’s “Drop It” approach as it’s one of the best tips I’ve received in a long time on stopping thoughts that aren’t helpful. When you become aware that you’re stuck in regret about the past, or that you’re overcome with worry about what the future holds, gently but firmly say, “Drop it.” Then immediately direct your attention to some current sensory input. It could be something you see or smell. It could be the physical sensation of your feet on the ground or of your breath coming in and out of your body. Dropping a stressful train of thought about the past or the future and relaxing into the present moment is a relief. And adding a slight smile can bring with it a sense of peace and well-being.

At the same time one can be obsessively thinking, being ill can be extremely isolating, painful and create a world of negativity and suffering. The comments of a former inmate address this, “I had to find something to keep me going, to keep my spirits up. Being in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, no interaction with people, that’s really hard on you. Frankl’s work “taught me to seek peace. It taught me that in a negative environment, I need to find the positive.”

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. Viktor Frankl

While I’m not about to say which approach, or combination there of, might work for you, it’s worth your time to read both:

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