Coping with coronavirus through existential therapy
As an experienced existential therapist in private practice, I remain optimistic about life despite my growing familiarity with the tragic aspects of human existence. The world sometimes seems an absurd place to me, but I take it seriously enough to have begun a counselling and lifelong learning research PhD in my 70s. I have recently been reflecting on whether my ongoing counselling service can be of help to people who are acutely distressed by the ways in which their lives have been adversely affected by the Coronavirus. Sometimes I turn to literature and philosophy, rather than science, for answers to difficult questions about our current worldwide situation. Contemporary society might accurately be described by the opening lines of Charles Dickens novel 'A Tale of Two Cities':
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair'.
Even when not struggling with the impact of a disastrous global pandemic, life is extremely hard for many people, especially in certain parts of the world, like those devastated by famine or armed conflicts and the massive exodus of refugees. Shocking media images of such disasters make us wonder how people can be so cruel to fellow human beings and how those deeply wounded by war and persecution must think about life and their fight for survival.
When people go through very difficult times, finding meaning, rather than enjoying immediate positive experiences, becomes more important in maintaining our long-term well-being, according to Viktor Frankl, who was an innovative and brilliant psychotherapist who survived life in a concentration camp during the Second World War. We all need something to live for. Frankl's 'Tragic Optimism' and his challenging version of psychological well-being, finding personal meaning and purpose in life experiences, provide us with a realistic perspective in a world full of suffering.
The promotion of happiness by the positive psychology movement, initiated by Martin Seligman in the USA, is focused on the idea of concentrating our psychotherapy practice and research efforts on understanding and facilitating psychological well-being, rather than accepting the traditional medical psychiatric focus on analysing and curing mental illness. This excellent idea was somewhat misunderstood, and politically hijacked, to imply that 'positive thinking' in general would automatically lead to lasting mental health and emotional transformation. For example, in my view ' Don't worry, be happy' may be lovely words for a song, and I know that music can be extremely therapeutic, but magical mood swing mantras may not prove to be the long-term answer to 'all our troubles', which definitely may not 'soon be over'.
In my own experience, developing greater resilience, and sometimes achieving 'post-traumatic growth', are ironically sometimes unexpected positive consequences of acute stress, anxiety and trauma. This well researched post-traumatic growth phenomenon has been carefully explained in a useful self-help book by Stephen Joseph. I have found that such growth and personal transformation may be achieved through a deliberate focus on rediscovering and developing our own qualities and strengths, reflecting on and expressing our personal values and finding out what really matters most to us. In contrast, traditionally we tend to look for medical help when acutely distressed and expect the diagnosis and treatment of identified psychiatric disorders.
Recent thinking in positive psychology research emphasises the importance of context in facilitating psychological well-being. In order to have a full understanding of well-being, it is essential to appreciate the broadest possible context of the human condition, with its dark side and existential issues, and the specific circumstances, such as peace and prosperity contrasted with war and poverty. Statements about well-being are not very meaningful or helpful without any reference to contextual social factors. If the context is one of political turbulence, terrorist threats and existential anxieties and suffering, which are inevitable and beyond our control, we can only overcome our perfectly rational fears by finding our inner strength and resilience and cultivating and nurturing our spiritual and existential ability to transcend adversity.
Helping people to find greater freedom and meaning in life is the ultimate aim of existential therapy. Together we work towards an understanding of the tensions, conflicts, dilemmas and paradoxes that are holding us back. We seek to throw light where there was darkness, in order to liberate people and give them back to themselves where they felt alienated, and to reconnect them where they felt isolated.
Each stage of existential therapy allows clients to look beyond their own particular view of the world and to begin to think about how they might perceive and experience their lives in different ways. Facing our freedom and responsibility for our fate is a more difficult path in life, for which we need existential courage. When we accept this challenge, we create the potential for leading a more meaningful and purposeful life, where we will undoubtedly struggle and suffer but will also discover much that is of value and worth.
Existential therapy seeks to help return ownership of life to a person and to enable each to reclaim their authority over what they decide to make of the opportunities available to them. There are few things more satisfying than to acquire mastery over the time that has been given to us and to use it to the best of our abilities, making the most of who we are capable of being in this constantly changing and threatening world.
Philosophies of the East and West together lead to a greater understanding of what Paul Wong calls 'Mature Happiness'. The popular Western human growth and development perspectives of thinkers such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers give us a sense of personal authenticity and the motivating goal of achieving a 'good life'. These ideas are not new and are primarily based on Aristotle's ancient Greek philosophy. Paul Wong's idea of mature happiness is also derived from Eastern philosophies, which focus on different and more 'transpersonal' concepts, such as 'attunement'. For example, Buddhist philosophy emphasises the importance of cultivating wisdom and compassion in order to be free from suffering and enjoy peace and contentment.
Chinese Taoism advocates the ideal of returning to the simple and natural way of living as a method of coping with the hardships and uncertainties of life. In popular indigenous Chinese philosophical thinking group harmony is considered more important than individual success, and contentment is the key to lasting happiness. The ideal life, according to mainstream Chinese philosophy down through the years is to live simply, in peace and harmony with family members and neighbours. This all seems quite appropriate for our current pandemic crisis.
Transpersonal psychology is heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies. The transpersonal is defined as experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, and global community. Transpersonal psychology views the whole person as being interconnected to the evolving world. It changes the inward focus to more self-expansive states of consciousness related to the spiritual, philosophical and other shared human experiences, where people can find meaning and happiness in their lives, sometimes transcending immediate difficulty and distressing circumstances. We are never experiencing life in isolation, even though it sometimes feels like it.
The starting point in my existential exploration of self-help positive psychology is that life is full of suffering, just as the living environment is full of bacteria, viruses and toxins. In global terms, our true understanding of well-being needs to be situated in the context of the shared human condition of suffering. Psychological well-being is not 'context-free' if it is to be relevant to real people and real life.
A comprehensive understanding of psychological well-being needs to take into account contextual factors, inner resources and more nuanced subjective interpretation of meaning and personal values. We can recover the will to live in difficult times through a 'way of being' that is characterised by seeking inner harmony, tranquillity, and connectedness. Even in hard times, like global pandemics, we can choose to take responsibility for how we experience life. That was the essential lesson so expertly and passionately taught by Viktor Frankl in tireless therapeutic contributions to humanity after his deeply traumatic experiences during the Holocaust, and it is also the founding principle of existential therapy.