The Role of Personal Significance and Meaning

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we learn about the definition of despair from the perspective of people who have gone through it. Those testimonies also address our feeling of numbness during despair, the causes of this feeling, and its impact on how we view our life.

Much of the science behind stress and trauma applies equally and accurately to the various effects of despair. 

However, given the particularly isolating nature of despair, it is critical to explore what others have said about it.

The philosophical pain of hopelessness and despair was put into words so clearly by one young man when he said, “My heart exists in a state of waiting for something to change, but my head knows that nothing will change, and so there is only emptiness…”

Emptiness. But in order to live through and then beyond that emptiness, that despair, we need to first understand it. 

Perhaps one of the simplest and most effective explanations for despair was given by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, and Holocaust survivor. He described despair as an equation:

D = S – M

Despair equals Suffering minus Meaning

In Frankl’s perspective, despair is suffering without any meaning or comprehensible purpose to the suffering. It is the point where all that you experience is the suffering, and nothing else.  

In previous chapters, we discussed numbness, a phenomenon that can occur in the context of chronic stress or PTSD, due in part to hypoarousal or the brain and body’s attempts to shield us from overwhelming feelings by turning all systems down low.  

Despair is stressful, and so it too has numbing effects. While it may feel like a creeping numbness, it may also feel like an intense form of pain in other moments. It can prompt outbursts just as it can prompt silence and lethargy.

A major risk associated with despair is that the numbing that often comes with it can make us feel dead to everything. This suppresses our ability to digest and interpret the pain that we have experienced and, indeed, may still be living through. 

Taking the first steps to digest and feel our own pain can thus be the earliest ray of light in a time of darkness.

In the context of hopelessness, it’s common to think to yourself “why do i even wake up in the morning?” or “But why should I move forward, and for what?” 

Here, we come back to Viktor Frankl’s equation (D=S—M) and the search for our most powerful human drive—meaning, as in something or someone so important to us that it has the power to overcome despair.

Traumatic experiences can cause us to lose a sense of meaning in life. Yet a sense of meaning is one of the only psychobiological forces that can contend with despair. 

There is no clear neurobiological explanation for a sense of “meaning.” 

“Meaning” may be a single driving force, or multiple things that can change over time, even day to day. 

It might be the desire to find a better life. 

It could be the longing to be reunited with our family. 

It might be the drive to finish a course, a degree, a thesis or dissertation, a book, some poetry or paintings that were started before stress and trauma. 

It might be certain relationships–loved ones including children, a partner, or friends. 

It could be faith, religion.

While each of these potential sources of meaning relate to and activate a host of physiological and psychological processes, “meaning” is overall associated with various pleasure and reward pathways in the brain. 

The pursuit of meaning and meaningful activities can stimulate oxytocin and dopamine which can sometimes assist in calming the stress response. 

Certain chemicals–including oxytocin can serve to soften or blunt the stress response. 

“Meaning” is of course unique from person to person. It might be something as simple as a longing to see the seashore, the streets, the hills, or just that particular color of sky again in the place where you grew up. 

An infinite number of things have this power of meaning. 

Many of us find meaning in others. In people. In love and in relationships. In community. In faith. In the natural world. And when we cling to others, and to meaning, that meaning can give us the strength and power to live through what would seem unimaginable to others, or even to ourselves before the trauma.