Finding Meaning in Crisis

Coming Together after Sandy

“Acute stress may help remind us of a fundamental truth: our common humanity.”

I have been consistently inspired by the clients I work with in the aftermath of the storm. So many extraordinary people have been able to focus their attention and resources on those in need. I am thankful to be touched by such humanity on a daily basis.

The article linked above demonstrates that bonding after a crisis is more beneficial than we may realize. The healing power of social connectedness can be profound. While this may sound perfectly reasonable, there are a great deal of emotions that can get in the way of our ability to engage with others during acute stress. So, how do we handle our emotions during a crisis? We use our Distress Tolerance skills!

Gaining perspective by making Comparisons to those in more dire circumstances is one of the more emotionally charged DBT skills that I teach. Skills trainees often respond to this skill with a strong judgmental reaction.  The natural question I hear is, “How would thinking about the pain of others make me feel better?” This concept can be difficult to grasp and thinking about those in pain can potentially raise our emotions (and keep us in Emotion Mind). At the same time, it has been evident that thinking about the experiences of those more directly impacted by the storm has been helpful in allowing us to tolerate our own difficulties. It becomes easier to tolerate the inconvenience and discomfort of temporarily living without electricity and heat when reminding ourselves of those who have permanently lost their homes.

Using Comparisons has been most effective with individuals who supplement it with Contributing. By shifting our thinking from our own “terrible,” “miserable,” “horrible,” situation and focusing on what we can do to help (Contributing) those who are worse off (Comparison), we will feel better (or at the very least be less likely to do something to make us feel worse). Consistent with cognitive-behavioral theory, the idea is that by changing our thinking and behavior we can change our emotions. For example, when I think, “Its awful that I have no power” I’m likely to sit on my hands, complain about how much it stinks (behavior), and I feel angry or sad (emotion). When I think, “I can help someone in far greater need than myself” I can volunteer, invite people to stay in my home, or lend people my car (behavior), and I feel camaraderie, pride, or joy (emotion). Without changing our circumstances, this simple change in cognition and action has significantly transformed our emotional wellbeing.

Another option is to implement the Distress Tolerance skills aimed at Improving the Moment. One of the more powerful strategies is finding Meaning in our experience. This skill encourages us to ask – how do we find a larger reason for what we have been through? For those who have lost a great deal in the storm, I understand this may seem unreasonable. At the same time, it is important to remember that we all experience pain in life. There is no escaping it. If we are able to accept that what we have experienced has been for some greater purpose we can build a sense of personal meaning and learn from our pain. This process improves the present moment and allows for future growth.

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