Evidence-based guidance for walking through a storm of troubles
In the present distressing uncertainties, we are all trying to make difficult decisions about what to do to make the best of whatever, sometimes catastrophic, circumstances we are in. This atmosphere of continuous anxiety and uncertainty about the future includes counsellors and coaches. We are only human after all.
Having written two articles trying to give my considered professional advice about how to cope and continue with our lives as best we can, I thought it might also be encouraging to give a glimpse of how I am using my own experience to try to apply some self-care and learn to adjust to a difficult situation which is affecting everyone in the world in a variety of ways.
Ironically, I personally feel the need to find relief by seeing moments of comedy in the tragedy. If I didn't laugh I would cry. That is the spirit in which this rather less serious and very personal and human commentary on our shared adversity is written.
If you're having sleepless nights worrying about how to 'stay alert', and you sometimes feel a bit like a hyper-vigilant meerkat in a sandstorm, my advice to you is 'hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark'. As I listened to centenarian 'Colonel' Tom bravely singing 'don't be afraid' to us, I realised that he had survived a terrible, and almost forgotten war in the Far East. Remembering VE day, he commented, with masterly understatement, that his conflict experience had been 'very hot and uncomfortable', and that he had 'mixed feelings' about the celebrations because many comrades were still fighting, suffering and dying out there.
I found the amazing Tom Moore personally inspiring because, if I live to be a hundred, or even 90, I hope that when my not-yet-born great-grandchildren ask me what I did during the horrid COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, I can truthfully say quietly that I did my bit to save humanity, like so many people who sacrificed so much during World War II.
I remember reading a wonderful, and darkly amusing, book about a hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window of his bedroom on his hundredth birthday and disappeared.
Spoiler alert: the people in the care home thought he had disappeared, but in fact, he went on an amazing adventure, and also gradually began to realise that he had inadvertently somehow saved the world several times during his long and eventful life. I am now hoping that the pen really is mightier than the sword. When I try to dig deep and find my own core strength and calm resilience, I realise that my regular Tai Chi sessions have not really prepared me very well for actual martial combat, such as that experienced by our traditionally reticent world war heroes.
My tentative effort at a wise and authentic morale-boosting message for everyone goes something like this:
We all need personal 'existential courage' to take collective responsibility for what happens to us next. Compassionate people of the world unite! Together we stand, divided we fall. Faced with a lethal common enemy we need to believe, as citizens of the world, as the remarkable Jo Cox MP once said, 'there is more that unites us than divides us'. Though, historically, we may sometimes feel like 'lions led by donkeys', the 'collective unconscious' of humanity seems to nudge most of us into doing what we can for the common good.
We have already lost countless loved ones to this relentless and unjust hidden enemy. It is a fight for survival in which we have, as Victor Frankl repeatedly said, to find our own meaning and purpose in order to endure the suffering. According to the generation who experienced the 2nd World War we must persevere stoically and eventually find a way forward.
However, when I dig deep to try to find that existential courage and resilience in myself, I feel a bit like Arthur Dent in 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', trying to make sense of an insane world that I seem to have been unexpectedly thrown into, still in my dressing gown and slippers. The coronavirus pandemic is a genuinely traumatic experience for most people through which I argue that we are challenged to somehow achieve 'post-traumatic growth' through our shared experiences of stress and anxiety.
My evidence-based, or tried and tested, coping strategy is to very deliberately focus on rediscovering and developing my own qualities and strengths, however well hidden and unfit for purpose they may seem. To reflect on and express my personal values, in whatever way I can, and to find out what really matters most to me in life. I am well aware that there are many people in the world far worse off than me, but that in itself doesn't seem to make me feel any less miserable at times.
As I said in my previous article for Counselling Directory, when the context is one of acute existential anxieties, suffering and uncertainty, which is inevitable and beyond our control, we can only overcome our perfectly rational fears by finding our inner courage, resilience, meaning and purpose. We can also try to cultivate and nurture our spiritual and existential ability to transcend adversity.
My conscience and sometimes incongruent internal dialogue is often very self-critical when I am stressed. Never-the-less, I work towards an understanding of the tensions, conflicts, dilemmas and paradoxes that are holding me back. Sometimes counselling can help us with this process as well. I have come to realise that facing my freedom and responsibility for my fate is a difficult path in life for which I need to dig deep to find existential courage. However, I still optimistically believe I have the potential for leading a more meaningful and purposeful life. I know I will undoubtedly continue to struggle and suffer but I hope that I will also discover much that is of value and worth.
For me there are few things more satisfying than to acquire mastery over the time that I have left and to use it to the best of my ability, making the most of who I am capable of being in this constantly changing and threatening world which still sometimes seems utterly absurd to me.
Having a durable sense of humour turns out to be one of the most valuable 'defences against the dark arts' in my slightly comical emotional armoury for ' walking through storms of troubles'. Reading Harry Potter isn't just for kids. We all tend to need the good guys to win, however old we may be.
I have concluded that many of us will have experienced some level of trauma during this global pandemic. One of the major changes that occur after trauma is the rupturing of the narrative of our life, of that which gives us a sense of identity and our place in the world. Creating a new narrative, one that takes these changes into account, is the overarching task for us as trauma sufferers; not just recovering from the distress but being able to incorporate the experience and move on.
It is sometimes extremely helpful to be able to tell our own stories and also to listen to the accounts of what has happened to others. This is why I'm sharing my experience with you. I have concluded from both my experience and extensive research that post-traumatic stress, like loss and grief, is a challenging yet vital aspect of human existence that we all experience and process in individual ways.
The particular form of 'expert companionship' offered by counselling relationships is one way in which people may be helped to find their own meaning and purpose, construct new narratives and move on.
The THRIVE model
Professor Stephen Joseph has conducted long-term research into the process of 'post-traumatic growth' and he offers the 'THRIVE' model as a guide to self-help for people recovering from trauma. The model presents reflective exercises in a detailed series of six stages or signposts to assist survivors through the process of coping and moving on with their lives.
This practical form of support represents a valuable outcome of his thorough research of the topic over 25 years. Joseph describes the 'signposts' in much greater detail in his excellent self-help book 'What doesn't kill us: a guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward'. I have used the 'THRIVE' signposts when counselling trauma victims and trying to facilitate the 'post-traumatic growth' which I genuinely believe we are all capable of achieving, just as humankind somehow seems to eventually triumph over adversity in the end.
Here are the signposts for post-traumatic growth:
- taking stock
- harvesting hope
- identifying change
- valuing change
- expressing change in action
Reflecting on my own experience and the narratives of past clients, I have found this guidance extremely helpful in the counselling process. Joseph also advises that therapy can be helpful in teaching new coping skills, but he warns that therapists cannot teach people meaning. Meaning is unique for each person. He suggests that what we can do is to support people in their own search for meaning.
What people may need is an 'expert companion' alongside them in their journey to understand and rebuild their lives. I hope this process of re-telling my own tales of transition from victim to survivor will be helpful to readers in devising their own personal guidance for 'walking through a storm of troubles'.