At peace with the world: how the sense of coherence helps us through crises
Our resilience determines how well we can deal with crises. But there are other factors that help us through difficult times. For example the sense of coherence.
It will not surprise you: There is no life without a crisis. Sometimes it comes suddenly and turns our lives upside down overnight, sometimes the crisis creeps up and approaches with smooth steps, like a predator that slowly stalks its prey – always ready for the all-important attack. And then there are the great crises of our time, which hover over us like a dark cloud with their hardly foreseeable effects. The coronavirus pandemic, the Ukraine war and the climate crisis – these are all challenges for generations. While many people feel powerless as a result, others still see meaning in even the greatest personal or social crisis. Your secret? Coherence.
Koha… what? The sense of coherence essentially describes how at peace we are with our environment and our lives. The construct, coined by the American-Isreal sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, consists of three parts that build on one another: understandability, manageability and significance. If I have a strong sense of coherence, I am convinced that I understand myself and my environment. As a result, I feel able to deal with challenges and tasks and find life as a whole or at least individual areas of life meaningful. So coherence describes a state in which everything is right – and the corresponding feeling ensures a pronounced inner balance and an optimistic self-image.
SOC influences resilience factor self-efficacy
During Germany’s darkest time, people still had to deal with completely different crises. Horror scenarios played out every day in numerous concentration camps during World War II, but thousands of people tragically lost their lives. And yet 30 percent of the women survived the time in the concentration camp relatively well, both physically and mentally, as Antonovsky found out in a study. For him it is clear: This is also due to the sense of coherence. As a result, the women have managed to build up a mental protective shield against external adversities.
Coherence is thus directly linked to self-efficacy, one of the most important building blocks for resilience, our psychological resistance. Self-efficacy describes the fact that I can actively change something about my situation and not just surrender to my fate. And when we see challenges as coherent, we can experience ourselves as effective. This in turn increases the likelihood of growing in crises instead of breaking down.
Aaron Antonovsky believes that the SOC is capable of far more than increasing our self-efficacy. In his research, the sociologist also dealt with the emergence of health and developed the model of salutogenesis. This forms the counterweight to pathogenesis, which deals with the development of diseases. And coherence, according to Antonovsky, is the core element of health. People who have a strong sense of coherence do more for their health. This also increases the physical resistance to crises.
Let’s make it clear: coherence pays off. Although Antonovsky’s concept is almost 50 years old, it has now been proven by numerous current studies. With one caveat: While health researchers assumed at the time that we could only influence our sense of coherence up to the age of 30, we now know that it changes throughout our lives. So you can learn coherence. Or at least develop the three components of comprehensibility, manageability and significance in one’s own life.
Learning coherence: understanding what is going on
A stable environment and clear structures in everyday life can help to make life more transparent. However, these are factors that we can only control to a limited extent. Self-reflection, for example, is a measure that everyone can tackle for themselves. It helps to question yourself regularly and, especially in times of crisis, to take a pragmatic look at the situation. If you can’t do this on your own, you can also ask friends and family for advice – it’s often easier to learn to understand together.
Learning coherence: staying able to act
No matter how self-confident and secure we can be, everyone feels helpless at times. In order to remain capable of acting and to feel like this, it can help to recall your previous successes and crises you have overcome. What have I already achieved – and above all, how? Those who know their resources and strengths will also sail more confidently through the storm. In order to have the appropriate reminders at hand in an emergency, you can, for example, keep a list of successes and crisis strategies. Incidentally, this also boosts self-confidence.
Learning coherence: doing something meaningful
What’s the meaning of life? There is no universal answer to this question. Nevertheless, it is important to give meaning to one’s life. That doesn’t mean we have to go out and save the world. We can find meaning in many different things. Some people find meaning in helping others, others find meaning in happy moments with friends, and others find meaning in their work. And some are still looking for meaning. And it’s worth it, because once we find what makes our lives meaningful, crises weigh a lot less.
Increasing your own sense of coherence is not a sprint, but a marathon. It takes time for us to really internalize new behaviors and thought patterns. And everyone should be aware of one thing: a high sense of coherence is no guarantee that crises will become child’s play. But it’s a good base to make the best of it.