Manning Regional Healthcare Center

GPS - Gratitude. Purpose. Spirituality

By: Bradley Madsen, Counselor at the Recovery Center at Manning Regional Healthcare Center

Well that escalated quickly!

Just 30 days ago we were going about life as usual. We were planning after church trips to Target and lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings, we were discussing summer vacation destinations and trying to think of excuses for skipping my cousin’s wedding in May (Okay that one was just me). Some of us were getting ready for March Madness – if only we knew how “mad” March would soon become.

And today, (March 31, 2020) we are enduring a reality that is unprecedented in modern times. None of us have lived through anything quite like this, and we are adjusting to what could become a “new normal” for months to come. We have all been shown just how fragile “normal” life can be, and it’s scary. We have seen grocery stores stripped clean of items many of us had taken for granted, we have watched schools, stores and churches close and the nightly news is mainly bleak. 

Those of us in essential roles are being screened daily, and many of us harbor fears that range from getting a fever to bankruptcy. If you are like me, you are wondering how this pandemic will affect your paycheck, your ability to pay the bills. The stress, anxiety and fear unleashed by an “invisible” killer has been surreal to this point, and according to some sources, we are in for at least another month of it. In normal times, our emotions can get the best of us but these aren’t normal times. If you want a demonstration of how edgy and scared people are, just try sneezing in the grocery store.  

So how do we keep our fears from getting the best of us? And if you’ve got kids at home, how do you help them with the anxiety they feel? At first my youngest son was happy to be out of school and play video games all day. Now he is watching the nightly news, smoking cigarettes, and I could swear his hair is getting gray. Seriously though, he wants things to go back to normal. Don’t we all?

Imagine the fear and anxiety this is causing for everyone. Many of us are living with perpetual anxiety, and many of our normal coping mechanisms have been put on hold (going shopping, getting together with friends at the bar, etc.) Many of us have to develop NEW coping skills for these negative emotional states. 

What is the best way to navigate out of negative emotional states? G.P.S., of course. No, your Garmin isn’t going to lead you to a safe place where money grows on trees and everyone has plenty of toilet paper, that’s not what I’m talking about. “G.P.S.” in an acronym for a powerful tool to help guide us out of negative emotional states such as anxiety, fear, stress, anger, resentment, etc. 

G.P.S. = Gratitude, Purpose and Spirituality

Like you, I’m scared. I’m scared of being laid off and not being able to pay the bills. I’m scared that someone close to me will catch this terrible virus and possibly die. I’m scared for my friends who are paramedics, and the many nurses in my family. I’m scared that there are people who are ignoring the “stay at home” advice, taking family outings to Wal-Mart with at least one kid who has a wet cough, runny nose and conspicuously red cheeks indicative of a fever of at least 101 degrees. (or is that just my Wal-Mart)?  -  I’m a little edgy, sue me.

But here’s the thing, I don’t have a lot of control over external events. And in all of the fears I just cited, I can find things to be grateful for if I look hard enough. While I’m scared of my job being affected, I’m also VERY grateful that I still HAVE a job, I’m grateful to be at work today. I’m grateful that administration and medical leadership are taking steps to safeguard my health (and the health of my peers & the public). I’m grateful for our local, state and federal leaders who are working tirelessly on solutions and safeguards. I’m grateful to those of you still showing up to work every day, despite the personal risks because you believe in helping people.

This will sound flippant, but it’s not: I’m grateful that I don’t live in New York City, or in Italy or Seattle. I often complain about living in Iowa, but right now I’m actually grateful to live in a rural area where we can all spread out a little. I’m grateful that my wife works part-time at HyVee and can get us toilet paper (it’s the little things, you know? And no, I probably can’t hook you up).  I don’t have enough room to list all of the things I’m currently grateful for. I suggest that if you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, you start to focus on gratitude. I’m still alive, I’m still relatively healthy, and I’m not currently going hungry. I’m grateful. I challenge any of you to maintain negative emotions (such as anxiety) and be genuinely grateful at the same time. It’s not possible.

Gratitude doesn’t resolve these things I’m afraid of, but it helps to keep me from dwelling on things outside of my control. Choosing to focus on gratitude gives me some power in uncertain times when we all feel a little powerless. If your kids are scared have a good discussion about what they are grateful for. Help them out with suggestions, this will help them to refocus and you might see the anxiety ease up a bit.

Next is purpose.  What is it (if not a sense of purpose) that gets you out of bed each morning? Purpose gives us something outside of ourselves to focus on. Right now writing this article is providing me with a sense of purpose. I learned a long time ago that I’m (generally) happiest with my life if I’m being of service and helping others. Helping seems to be my purpose. When I focus on fulfilling my purpose, I’m spending less time inside my own head, and less energy entertaining and feeding my anxiety.

Purpose gives us goals and puts us to work, purpose gets me through today and it will get me through tomorrow if I let it. Realizing (and following) your purpose will see you through to the other side of this. Purpose drives our lives. Of course, we can have more than one purpose, but if you are struggling right now – take some time alone to think and figure out what your purpose is. Ask yourself: “what actions tend to make me feel truly fulfilled as a person?” If you can answer that question, you have a good idea of your purpose. Then determine what you can do (today) to begin to fulfill your purpose. Maybe it’s as simple as “I’m just going to be the best human (or nurse, or mom, or whatever) that I can be right now, and I’ll try it again tomorrow”.

The last part of the G.P.S. is “spirituality”. I’m not the one anyone should take religious advice from. I’m not a super churchy person, I can’t cite scripture and I couldn’t name more than 4 of the apostles if you paid me. While spirituality can encompass religion, spirituality itself is something a little different. When I practice “spirituality” I do so by trying to stay fully aware that I’m just a single part of something much bigger than me. That’s it. I’m me, and I’m important, but I’m just a tiny cog in an infinitely big machine.

On a small level, I’m a part of the hospital team. I’m important, but I’m one piece out of many. I’m also a part of the universe, I choose to believe that I’m here for some reason but I also believe that I’m way too small to truly comprehend that reason. God (or the universe) has some sort of plan for me, I’d sure love to know what that plan is – but I don’t and I probably never will. So I have to be okay with that and follow what I sense to be my purpose. The spirituality part is acceptance that I’m a part of something larger than myself.

When I consider my spirituality within the context of a global pandemic, I accept that whatever happens is what was meant to happen. I’m important to a lot of people, I’m important to God and/or the universe, but I’m not so important that I’m immune to struggle or suffering. My spirituality helps me to accept that struggle and suffering is not anomalous, it’s a part of the process of being alive.

The only way to strengthen muscle is work out and damage the muscle so that it heals slightly bigger and stronger.  This pandemic may cause me some pain or discomfort, but when I survive pain and discomfort; I’m a better and stronger person for it. And if I don’t survive the pain or discomfort (if the illness takes me), I accept that’s what was meant to be. I will take precautions to avoid it, but ultimately I’m not the one in control of the universe. The universe may hit me with things that hurt, but I choose to believe that my suffering serves a higher purpose. Spirituality is a personal thing, but exploring it can help one to find meaning in pain & suffering. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl demonstrates how this sense of “spirituality” can help one survive through even the hardest of times. Maybe don’t read that book to your kids though, fair warning. It’s a rough story.

Listen; maybe dial the whole spirituality part down a couple of notches when talking to your kids, (unless they are really into Buddhism, Logotherapy and Carl Jung, I suppose) but use G.P.S. to help you through these troubling times, and teach them that focusing on these things can help them through hard times.

Help you or those around you are struggling with stress and anxiety in these troubling times, try to focus on gratitude, purpose and spirituality.

We are all in uncharted waters, people are dying and words provide very little comfort for their families and friends, I understand this well. What we can do is honor those people by living the best lives we possibly can, and by fulfilling our purpose on a daily basis. We do this by focusing things within our control, accepting the things NOT in our control and taking this one day at a time. We live our best lives when we focus on gratitude, purpose and spirituality. And if we can also stop hoarding toilet paper, that would be great too. Hang in there folks, this too shall pass.  

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