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.
The sense of coherence is comprised of three factors:
• a sense of comprehensibility:
Do you feel that you can understand things, that things make sense and are not confusing?• a sense of manageability:
Do you feel that things are predictable or can be expected? In other words, do you feel like you know what’s going to happen next, or that you know what’s coming?
Do you feel that things are manageable or within your control, that things can be handled or taken care of?
Do you feel you have the skills or ability, the support, the help, or the resources necessary to take care of things?• a sense of meaningfulness:
Do you feel that things are interesting or fascinating, a source of pleasure or satisfaction?
Do you feel that things are really worth it, that there is good reason or purpose to care about what happens?The third factor is the most important. If you don’t understand what’s going on, but you know you can handle it, that’s not such a problem. If you understand things but can’t deal with them, at least you know where you stand and you’ll probably be able to get through it. If you don’t understand stuff and you don’t know what to do, you can still hold out hope that things will get better, as long as it is really worth it to hold on.
But when there is no pleasure or satisfaction to be found, when it doesn’t really seem worth it, and there is no good reason to care about what happens, that is when people are genuinely in trouble. That is when stress will do you in or do you harm.
* Update 03/25/2014: A reader pointed out that this post negligently failed to mention Aaron Antonovsky. the Israeli medical sociologist who named and developed the "SOC" concept as part of his theoretical, empirical and observational research on the topic of health, stress and coping.
Antonovsky was properly credited in a later article I wrote: Aaron Antonovsky's insight on observing Holocaust survivors.
Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.