The year 2021 has arrived, and, sadly, it looks like the world will continue to be a terrifying, unpredictable dumpster fire for at least a little while more. Which is incredibly stressful. But as author, entrepreneur, and former Stanford lecturer Nir Eyal pointed out on his blog recently, humans have been through plenty worse before.
He points to the story of Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust to go on to become one of the world's most influential psychiatrists. We can look at Frankl for instruction on how to handle both everyday stresses and pandemic-related panic. In fact, Frankl's inspirational story provides the closest thing to an off switch for stress humans are likely to find, according to Eyal.
If it worked in 1942, it will work in 2021
Frankl's experience living through the Nazi death camps taught him that some people can face the greatest imaginable horrors and still keep their hope and humanity. Others crumple. What's the difference between these two groups? The short answer is perspective.
In the face of incomprehensible evil, what difference could attitude make? As Frankl saw, a person's outlook could literally be the difference between life and death. Those who managed to keep striving to live in the camps, he observed, were those who focused on whatever they could control, however small those things might be.
"Faced with unimaginable hardship, he had no idea how long the torment would continue. There was no guarantee of rescue, and many of his companions died of starvation, illness, or worse. What did he do differently to cope with the stress?" Eyal asks of Frankl. "He changed the focus of his attention. Frankl searched for meaning and purpose in the smallest daily actions, like caring for a friend or saving a scrap of string that might be useful later. He also found long-term meaning and purpose in the idea of survival itself."
However awful 2020 may have been, it was nowhere near as bad as Frankl's 1942. And Eyal suggests that if focusing on what you can control got Frankl through the Holocaust, it can certainly help us get through our current isolation, economic uncertainty, and political hopelessness. You can't switch off these stressors, but you can switch your focus, and that can make all the difference in how your body and mind responds.
"Are you facing the stress of an uncertain future? If so, it helps to focus on what you can control. Sometimes that means bringing the finish line closer by setting goals for today or this week instead of trying to figure out what you'll do if you lose your job three months from now. Sometimes, it means making a list of 10 ways you can stay connected with friends and choosing the best one to put into action," Eyal writes.
Looking for more details on ways to regain a sense of control? Eyal's post has additional suggestions.