From Hopelessness to Well-Being: Finding Meaning
Part 1 of 2 “I’m so tired of waking up feeling bad and scared. Every day I wonder why I had this baby when the planet is collapsing around us and everything feels upside down.”
This was the start of a therapy session with a postpartum mama trying to make sense out of her day.
Another recently told me, “My husband and I have wanted a baby more than anything in the world. Now, we’re no longer so sure that this would be the right thing for us to do, given the state of the world. I mean, it’s crazy out there. What will the world be like for them?”
Noticing this trend of hopelessness in response to perilous realities and the litany of environmental, political, social, and medical and mental healthcare crises, I can’t help but wonder about the contagious and ubiquitous impact this shared despair has on each and every one of our psyches and spirits. We are all craving some degree of emotional restoration, reassurance, grounding, predictability – to soothe our collective anxious souls. Our regulatory behaviors don’t feel sufficient at the moment, leading to overloaded nervous systems which, in some cases, morph into a perpetual state of apprehension. Things we have all relied on for comfort or a respite from our worries feel inadequate in response to the severity of restlessness and alarm permeating the air. Our go-to resources for relief are running out of steam.
All humans function best when we have answers, or a plan, or a direction. When we have a purpose, a design, or an intention.
In today’s uncertain world, we have more questions than solutions which is a breeding ground for relentless anxiety. Add that to the already vulnerable environment of a new mom and dad, and things can quickly escalate to extraordinary and unprecedented levels of distress. The issues parents raise today cannot be dismissed as “just anxiety.” They are thoughtful and unsettled concerns about the known and unknown variables that have never before confronted young families. Parents are being forced to make decisions that most of us could never have dreamt would urgently be placed in front of them. Research is showing us that COVID-19 is having detrimental effects on maternal mental wellbeing on top of the 1 out of 7 women who experience postpartum mood and anxiety disorders prior to the pandemic. (Chen, Li, Xiong, & Zheng, 2022).
As therapists, we find ourselves sitting in the mess with them, hoping our clarity can help them navigate this uncharted territory, along with our own anxieties which we quietly tuck into the background. When our professional resilience feels unsteady, when we wonder if we are “enough” or whether our clients’ have anything to gain from our presence during turbulent times – I turn inward.
My personal journey always directs me to Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, for guidance. I recall the teachings from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, as he reminds us that the primary and fundamental force which motivates people during difficult times – especially related to trauma and perceived purposelessness – is to find meaning.
Quite a huge undertaking to ask of overwhelmed, weary and dispirited souls. Still, Frankl maintains it is this task to find meaning which serves to decrease feelings of despair and fuels motivation and our capacity for joy. Finding meaning, he elaborates, is accomplished through various means:
1) Purposeful work or creation (creative endeavors, projects that keep you focused, excited and working toward a goal).
2) Experiencing truth, beauty and love, by reaching beyond yourself and helping/connecting with others.
3) Suffering. This is hard. The very first step is to accept that it is there. Pushing away any uncomfortable emotion or sensation usually makes it stronger and more present. Accepting that you are suffering does not mean indulging or wallowing in it. It means identifying it so you can address it and take care of yourself.
Finding meaning through suffering is perhaps our most challenging act of courage and introspection and represents a potential pathway to well-being. It is up to each of us, to reflect on and actualize this in a way that is unique to ourself, our own narrative, and our own skill set.
When my father’s health was rapidly declining, I remember asking my mother, a holocaust survivor, how she does it, day after day and throughout the night, attending to his every need, with sparse and woefully inadequate help. I asked her how she gets up every morning, after being up half the night, only to face the same emotionally-charged yet tedious caregiving role. She said, “This is what I’m supposed to do now. It’s not easy, but he needs me to do this. It’s hard, but it feels important. I am determined to make this part of our journ