Articles - 20th May 2019

Facing challenges and developing your inner strengths – according to science

Words by Olivia Remes

Sometimes as a freelancer you face challenges.  The project is turning out harder than expected, you’re having a tough time finding your next client, or you’re dealing with some personal issues which are getting in the way of your work.  It’s hard getting over these challenges, and the more you think about them, the more depressed and anxious you become. But there are some people who seem to be able to face obstacles and yet still retain their mental health.  What these people have in common is a strong “sense of coherence”. Further in the article, I will explain what it is.

But first, how did this all come about?  Research in this area, which encompasses sense of coherence, started a few decades ago when scientists noticed that some people who had been exposed to hardships and tough situations bounced back, while others spiralled downwards and developed depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other problems. They wanted to know why this was happening. What was the difference between the two groups? So they studied them: they tracked their health, looked at their personal characteristics, and outcomes they developed in life. They wanted to know why some people who had endured some of the hardest circumstances were able to keep going in life, while others not so much?  

This was part of a whole movement in health research that began to focus on people’s strengths rather than disease and decline.  Traditionally, scientists asked the question: why are we getting sick? Why do we die early? Why do we develop stress?

But researchers discovered that it’s equally, if not more, important to ask: what makes us thrive in life?  What makes us maintain good mental health in spite of experiencing challenges? Because even though we’ve all got weaknesses, we’ve also got great strengths that we can use to our advantage.  And we can harness these strengths to bounce back after encountering adversity.

In our research at the University of Cambridge, we showed that women who had been exposed to some of the most deprived circumstances didn’t have anxiety, while others facing the same hardships had high levels of anxiety.  So the question was: what is the difference between these two groups? The difference, we discovered, lay in their “sense of coherence”. Women who had a strong sense of coherence didn’t have anxiety even if they were exposed to the stress of living in deprivation, while those without a strong sense of coherence had poor mental health.  

What is this sense of coherence?  It’s an orientation to life, a way of viewing life.  The great sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, who developed the concept, explained that our daily lives are in a state of constant change.  To be able to deal with the chaos that can sometimes enter our lives, we need to be able to adapt to change – and this is where the sense of coherence comes in.  People with a strong sense of coherence believe that the world makes sense and is manageable and that challenges are worth striving for. They are able to call upon their strengths and resources to deal with the stressors that arise in life.   

Feeling in control  

Having a strong sense of coherence means feeling like you’re in control of your life; this is one of its components.  If you feel like you’re missing this control, then researchers say that you should be doing things that give you greater control.  And I wrote about how you can achieve this by using the “do it badly” technique in another UnderPinned article.

Purpose and meaning

Another component of sense of coherence is feeling like your life has meaning and purpose.  This is important for maintaining good mental health. If you feel like your life has purpose and meaning, it’s much easier to withstand hardships.  You know the reason you are striving in life. The reason you are working and making a living. And you can find this by doing something with someone else in mind.

Work is one part of us.  But if we want to attain even greater wellbeing, we must also take care of ourselves outside of work, and nourish that side of us that is looking for purpose and meaning in life.  When we know that someone else relies on our accomplishments and love, this gives us the motivation to keep going. It’s the engine in life and makes it easier to go through the toughest times.  And this isn’t about looking for validation from other people. It’s about genuinely knowing that we are needed by another being, which could be a daughter or elderly parent we’re taking care of, or even an animal that’s waiting for us to give them food at home.  We can also make a difference by volunteering.

Finding meaning and purpose is important because without it we’re vulnerable to depression.  The famous neurologist Viktor Frankl said, “For people who think there’s nothing to live for, nothing more to expect from life, the question is getting these people to realize that life is still expecting something from them.”  So if you’re concerned about finding your next client or project, keep in mind that it’s just as important to know who might ultimately benefit from all of your labour.  Knowing you’re needed also helps you take the spotlight off of yourself and your worries – like where is your next paycheck coming from – and placing it onto another living being and how you can make their lot in life better. 

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