Finding Meaning in Distressing Situations 

On Thursday, I experienced a challenging situation at university when I felt triggered by something in class. At the time, it was highly distressing, although I did manage to get through it effectively.

Someone I know who commented on the post I wrote about it shared some invaluable advice with me. What she shared reminded me of the DBT skill IMPROVE, in which the M in the acronym stands for Meaning. Her feedback helped me look back and find Meaning in the situation, by reminding me of what my long-term goals are, and what I ultimately would like out of life.  

Finding meaning in something that is happening or has happened is not always intuitive, especially when the situation is intensely painful. I know that in some situations I may only be able to apply meaning to an event in hindsight like I did this time, but I am wondering if implementing it in a moment of distress may be easier now that I have evidence of the skill helping me after an experience. 

I do use this skill quite a lot but it is always helpful to have the reminder. If I am in a distressing situation and know I am being willful or just generally struggling to get through, I try and find meaning in it to help me hang on in there. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get through a situation; otherwise I find myself questioning what the point in everything is and ending up in a bit of a rut and negative thought spiral. Finding meaning eliminates that thought process slightly.  

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, said –

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…”

I know this may not be 100% true and cannot be applied to every situation, however it certainly does help me at times, even if I have to create a meaning that is just to get me through. 

Something as simple as “This is a really challenging and painful situation, and if I can get through it effectively, I can use it to show both myself and my therapist how hard I am working, and we can both be proud of me”. 

Oftentimes the Meaning I create is based around my therapist because I love her (what am I like!?), but getting through a situation with “If I manage this effectively, it will show her X and lead to Y” is better than not getting through the situation at all. 

And, whilst trying to prove to my therapist that I can be effective and skilful in a situation, I am also ultimately proving it to myself. 

“If I can cope with this, I am adding evidence to my evidence bag proving to myself that I can get through these immensely challenging life experiences, effectively”, as an old therapist used to say. The next time a similar situation arises, maybe I’ll even refer to this evidence and think back to the obstacles I have managed to overcome.

For example, finding meaning in the situation at university would be something like, “The situation was terrifying and triggering, indeed. And…. what happens in real life if a trigger occurs where the threat is perceived not actual? Yes, you can try and eliminate the trigger, OR you can learn to manage your response to it. Truthfully, triggers cannot be avoided – and if they were, and your system remained settled of course, that would be just an illusion of recovery. So, learning to deal with those triggers, being exposed to those triggers, and surviving those triggers in one piece, are all steps towards ultimate true recovery”.

That, for me is giving meaning to what happened. 

If I emailed the university to complain, or had left the lecture, or ranted at my professor, I would be giving power to the triggering event which is not warranted. In not doing the above however, I proved to myself that I could get through a distressing situation, a) without making it worse and b) moving me one step closer towards reaching my long term recovery goals. 

And as Viktor Frankl said in his quote above, as the meaning is found, acceptance increases, perspective widens, and ultimately the suffering does go down.


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