Faced with an economic crisis, a housing crisis, a healthcare crisis, a global warming crisis, and a “war on terror” that appears to have no end in sight, it’s no wonder that Americans are becoming increasingly stressed out! To be sure, life in the 21st Century is much more complex and complicated than what I had imagined when I was growing up. By the time we reached that magical year, “2000,” I visualized and assumed that we all would be living in a utopian world much like “The Jetsons,” the popular animated television show of the 1960s (by the way, a live-action adaptation of The Jetsons, produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions and Warner Brothers, is set for release in 2009!).
Alright, so the future is here and what I had imagined as a child--that is, my utopian, “Jetson-like,” heaven on earth vision--did not come to pass. And, yes, we live in uncertain, volatile, fragile, and undoubtedly, stressful times. But life goes on, does it not? Why is it, however, that some people appear to have an easier time dealing with complex and challenging situations than others? And why do some people seem more capable of coping with stress, life challenges, and even “crises” outside of their control, than others? One could say that through our various life experiences and from the investments we make in our own personal growth and development, our repertoire of coping skills can and usually does change over time. In other words, when we invest in ourselves-through, for instance, such things as training, counseling, and various methods of self-discovery--the return, we figure, is going to be a renewed effectiveness in dealing with life’s situations and, ideally, a more healthy and fulfilling life.
Naturally, this sounds pretty good. I’m afraid, however, that good intentions are not enough to get us through the myriad of life transitions that we all must face. Let me propose further that it’s simply not enough to have a repertoire of coping skills (or, put differently, a “toolbox” filled with coping mechanisms) at our disposal, no matter how much we may have “paid” for them, when confronting life’s formidable challenges and when dealing with stress. There is actually something more fundamental that, ultimately, must precede the use of such mechanisms if we really want to build and sustain our “coping” and stress management capabilities.
I was blessed to have as a mentor, the world-renown psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, whose personal story of finding a reason to live in the most horrendous of circumstancesNazi concentration campshas inspired millions of people all around the world. In my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts (which I wrote at Dr. Frankl’s personal urging), you’ll find his philosophy and therapeutic approach applied to life and work in the 21st Century. In this regard, here is an important passage from my book that relates directly to building one’s capacity for dealing with stress even under unimaginable conditions; it describes Frankl’s thoughts upon his arrival at Auschwitz:
Unless there was a 100% guarantee that I will be killed here on the spot, and I will never survive this concentration camp last part of my life, unless there is any guarantee, I’m responsible for living from now on in a way that I may make use of the slightest chance of survival, ignoring the great danger surrounding me in also all of the following camps I had been sent. This, as it were, a coping, not mechanism, but a coping maxim I adopted, I espoused, at that moment.
In Frankl’s case, had he not adopted his coping beliefs upon his arrival at Auschwitz, he might not have been able to sustain his optimistic and passionate view about his chances of survival. Importantly, by choosing his fundamental attitude, which he called his “coping maxim,” the coping mechanisms in his psychiatrist tool kit then became more meaningful and effective, not only for himself but also for his fellow prisoners, who were trying against the odds to survive the inescapable horrors of the Nazi death camps.
What lessons, we should all ask ourselves, can we learn from Dr. Frankl’s experience? Think about difficult situations in your own life or work in which your attitude played a defining role in how well you were able to cope. Think about the coping mechanisms that were at your disposal. Did you choose to use them? Why or why not? How effective were you in coping with the situation and the stresses that may have been associated with it? Now ask yourself a more fundamental question: What guides your coping skills? In other words, what principle or principles underlie your decision-making during crises and in complex, challenging, and stressful situations?
Now ponder the times when you observed people who were guided by their coping skills in difficult decision-making situations. I am sure that you can identify cases of extraordinary resolve by your family members, friends, and co-workers during times of hardshippersonal or occupational. Although these situations may not have been as catastrophic as that experienced by Viktor Frankl, they may still have been formidable and highly stressful, and perhaps even inescapable, challenges to overcome or survive.
- What can you learn from these people and how will you “grow” from their experiences?
- As a result, what principle or principles will underlie and guide your decision-making in complex, challenging, and stressful situations, including crises, now and in the future?
- What is your coping maxim?
All the best,
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning
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