Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and concentration camp survivor, once said,
“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
This may sound like an added burden to be taken with reluctance, particularly in these trying times of a global pandemic when we are no longer able to change a situation. Some are already being challenged, as Frankl said, “to change ourselves.” However, if you distill the meaning of “responsibility” to its roots, you will understand it to be as much a privilege as a burden. It can also be as liberating as it is a responsibility. Being responsible, or “response able,” is the challenge, and in every challenge, there is opportunity.
I have framed this challenge we have all been facing for many weeks now in the sense of an exercise routine. I am as averse to exercise as anyone, so just like this crisis, there is nothing routine about it. With that said, I think of it in three phases of a workout. There was initially a sprint or high-intensity phase, then the extended marathon phase we’re in now, and eventually a move to the cool-down phase.
The Sprint Phase
As much as I dislike working out, I find the sprint more manageable. I can focus on what needs to be accomplished with a more streamlined process to follow and get through. What I particularly loathe is the grueling “cardio.” As daunting and overwhelming as it may have been, in some ways the initial period of this crisis was more manageable for some—complying with stay-at-home directives, social distancing, wearing a mask, etc. Of course, this has still been challenging, and can cause stress. When feeling stress, be sure to just take things day by day. Show yourself some compassion during this time. Practice mindfulness by journaling, meditating or just doing simple breathing exercises.
The Marathon Phase
As weeks turned to months, we all face what I see as the more difficult challenge of living our daily lives in this “new normal”. This is the challenge of endurance. As in a marathon, we must pace ourselves to endure over the long haul. While we may need to change our stride to adjust to new developments along the way or take a pause to catch our breath, we are setting our pace by establishing a routine. This is where I advise building structure into our daily lives—even in our unique and confined realities. We might be asking ourselves, “What will it be like to ‘get back’ to some degree of normal? What does normal even look like now?”
This may be a harder process, partly because it will be more phased and deliberative. The path may be less clear, and we might become overwhelmed when trying to contemplate what the future will bring. I suggest refocusing with kindness to yourself, as well as appreciating that you are here now and have made it to this point safely. While this crisis is unprecedented on a global level and scale, you have surely been through your share of crises in your personal life. You have the capacity to make it through this, and you’ll have the scars to remind you of the trials you weathered. Know that you have become stronger from this. Let that bring you the comfort you need to continue the journey.
The Cool-down Phase
Finally, we approach “cool-down”. It’s important that we take a measured and deliberative approach, rather than suddenly stopping to rest and resume our usual activity. Through no real choice of our own, we’ve had to endure a tremendous amount in these last couple of months. Whether or not we are aware of it, it has likely put us through a great deal of strain. If we are not attentive to this, it can wreak more havoc on our community and ourselves than we might have even experienced during the crisis itself. We hear about concerns over a “second wave” of infections. We are particularly vulnerable if we follow any impulses to just forget about all of this, take off our masks, and move too mindlessly toward urges for normalcy and being together again as if nothing ever occurred. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has noted, such a second wave is “preventable” by continuing to be mindful and attentive to the situation.
The good news is that you will already be doing so much to help prevent and mitigate against the damages of PTSD by following all of the self-care measures suggested. Make sure to attend to your mental health, and to that of others in your life and community. If you are struggling to function in your daily life, seek professional help through a doctor and explore behavioral health treatment options. Deferring or delaying your mental health can become a crisis within a crisis.
Dr. Viktor Frankl famously said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This time has been hard for everyone, but we must actively look to deal with our anxieties and uncertainties so that we can change our attitudes in the weeks and months ahead.