In May 2017, Olivia Remes of the University of Cambridge gave a refreshing TEDx lecture, "How to Cope with Anxiety," in which she pinpoints three strategies or "coping resources" that can help anyone take charge of paralyzing anxiety. This week she released study findings on the value of a sense of coherence as a buffer against stress and anxiety. First, the three strategies:
1. Do It Badly
The first advice Remes offers in her lecture is to "Do it badly." This coping strategy is rooted in the idea that lowering your ideals of perfection and accepting that it's OK to "do it badly" is an easy way to avoid psyching yourself out and any subsequent avoidance behaviors. Over time, the repeated exposure and practice of facing a daunting challenge (without having any expectations of "hitting it out of the park") will lead to less anxiety and mastery.
Second, Remes recommends practicing self-compassion and forgiving yourself for mistakes and shortcomings This advice reminds me of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi" which can be traced to the Zen philosophy of seeing more beauty in imperfection than flawlessness. Embracing your own "wabi-sabi" with a sense of compassion can also facilitate creating a state of flow by making it easier to authentically match your degree of skill with an aspirational level of challenge. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified long ago, the secret sauce for creating flow is simply tuning into your personal sweet spot "between boredom and anxiety."
Third, Remes suggests that you can lower egocentric anxiety by finding a sense of purpose and meaningfulness by shifting the focus of your motivation to "doing it" for someone else. This advice echoes the well-known concept of "generativity" put forth by Erik Erikson. He described generativity as "a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation." When faced with the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation" or the existential question of "Can I make my life count?" Erikson recommended shifting the focus away from oneself towards how your contributions and hard work will benefit others in the near and distant future.
Please take a few minutes to watch Olivia Remes Tedx lecture:
This week, Olivia Remes presented her most recent research findings, "Sense of Coherence as a Coping Mechanism for Women with Anxiety Living in Deprivation," at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual conference (Sept. 2-5, 2017) in Paris. Remes' latest study found a correlation between having a strong "Sense of Coherence" (SOC) and a lower risk of someone developing generalized anxiety disorder.
For this research, Remes and colleagues at the University of Cambridge surveyed 10,000 women over the age of 40 from various socioeconomic backgrounds who were all taking part in a major cancer study. This is the largest population-based study to examine the correlation between generalized anxiety disorder, area deprivation, and sense of coherence.
"Sense of Coherence" was first defined by Aaron Antonovsky (1923-1994) in the late 20th century. Antonovsky once said, "Beyond the specific stress factors that one might encounter in life, and beyond your perception and response to those events, what determines whether stress will cause you harm is whether or not the stress violates your sense of coherence."
Simply put, people with a strong sense of coherence tend to share a three-pronged view of life as being: (1) comprehensible, (2) manageable, and (3) meaningful. They also believe that the "ho-hum" aspects of day-to-day life can be a source of immense satisfaction.
Shortly before his death in the early 1990s, Antonovsky created an "Orientation to Life Questionnaire" which measures someone's sense of coherence based on various questions about his or her comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness.
Remes' latest research on coping strategies used Antonovsky's questionnaire to assess SOC and found that women living in adverse conditions who had a strong sense of coherence were significantly less likely to experience generalized anxiety disorders. In the conclusion of the abstract of this study, the authors write:
"Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder exists, with psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy being commonly prescribed. However, success rates are fairly low, patients relapse, and some fail to experience any symptom improvement. Costs to the health care system related to anxiety are substantial. Therefore, targeting people's coping resources could represent another option for people with anxiety, including those who do not experience symptom improvement following commonly-prescribed therapies."
Remes sums up the takeaway of her team's latest research: "In general, people with good coping skills tend to have a higher quality of life and lower mortality rates than people without such coping skills. Good coping can be an important life resource for preserving health. For the first time, we show that good coping skills can buffer the negative impact of deprivation on mental health, such as having generalized anxiety disorder. And importantly, these skills, such as feeling like you're in control of your life and finding purpose in life, can be taught."
"Sense of Coherence as a Coping Mechanism for Women with Anxiety Living in Deprivation" O. Remes, N. Wainwright, P. Surtees, L. Lafortune, K.T. Khaw, C. Brayne. University of Cambridge, Public Health and Primary Care, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Antonovsky, Aaron. "The structure and properties of the sense of coherence scale." Social science & medicine 36, no. 6 (1993): 725-733.
Eriksson, Monica, and Maurice B. Mittelmark. "The Sense of Coherence and Its Measurement." In The Handbook of Salutogenesis, pp. 97-106. Springer International Publishing, 2017.