As I was preparing and editing my interview with Kelly Harris of Warriors Heart for my upcoming podcast episode, a theme emerged: ‘perceived ability to cope’. It’s a concept that is very similar to the idea of agency and locus of control.
In resilience research Perceived Ability to Cope is a very powerful contributing factor that influences how we respond to events and people. It is tied to lightning fast perception that occurs when we are faced with any situation. It is a mind-brain-body system calculation - based on statistics and probabilities - that attempts to predict our chances of surviving the next point in a sequence of events. Those statistics and probabilities can only be created with data points that come from our experiences.
When our perceived ability to cope with something is low, it means that our internal working model has built into its calculations that we will not be able to handle whatever the situation is. This can result in either a heightened mobilization and sympathoexcitatory mode or a shutdown.
In an actual life-threatening situation, mobilization and defense strategies are a key to our survival.
Many humans, however, deal with non-life-threatening situations on a more frequent basis.
This doesn’t mean there are no ‘threats’, however: as a hyper-social species, we are faced with ‘social survival’ challenges. Threats to social survival include rejection, violence and an inability to co-regulate our nervous systems with others (which is essential for restoring our internal organs). These threats can happen for many reasons, including past traumas and dysregulated or dysfunctional social dynamics that come from people’s histories. Because our first experiences as humans are so biologically dependent on the reactions and interactions we have with the people around us, the statistics and probability data that gets accumulated over time creates internal working models that are based on a more helpless and immature version of us. THat helpless version of us has an extremely low perceived ability to cope. If this doesn’t get updated through healthy and empowering experiences throughout life, this can lead people to have low perceived ability to cope with situations even as they enter adulthood.
To help us through this, we need to update the statistics that are being used to calculate our ability to cope with whatever is in front of us at a given moment.
The way to update these statistical models is to give more data in favor of you understanding your ability to survive a multitude and variety of situations. We can do this by exposing ourselves to experiences that may push us to feel uncomfortable, challenged - both on mental, physical and social-emotional levels. Examples include pushing ourselves physically such as in fitness and sport type of activities- where we allow ourselves to push through the uncomfortable sensations that come from exertion and get to the other side of that. On a social-emotional level, this can include trying therapies, or retreats, as well as expressing ourselves in vulnerable ways with the openness of receiving feedback.
Improving your perceived ability to cope influences your responses to events as well as the choices you make and goals you set for yourself. The higher that perceived ability, the bigger and bolder your choices, and the more regulated your responses will be to events and setbacks. Having people around us who acknowledge and remind us of our strength also play a big role in our self-perception… so it’s important to surround ourselves with those types of connections.
Find people, experiences and organizations that challenge you acknowledge a strength and potential that you may currently not even realize exists within you.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look..”
― Marcus Aurelius
With Love from Me to You
A podcast episode that really inspired recently and gave interesting insights into the idea of our ability to cope and make decisions through stress is this one by Fieldcraft Survival with hostage rescue expert Christopher Whitcomb and Mike Glover.
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