“Believe in yourself!”

Optimism, faith and spirituality can help us get through crises. Psychologist Ulrike Ehlert and theologian Thomas Schlag talk about strength and vulnerability, the slowing down of life, and the opportunities that can come out of crises.

Roger Nickl

Mann fischt in der Badewanne
We are not used to personal restrictions and regulations that affect our personal lives and are imposed from outside. When facing the corona crisis we need to show endurance and be able to draw positives from the situation. (Image: Yves Noyau)

Ulrike Ehlert, Thomas Schlag, the theme for this issue of the UZH Magazin is “A World Turned Upside Down. Learning from the Crisis.” To what extent does a crisis really turn the world upside down?

Ulrike Ehlert: Crises can take very different forms – a relationship break-up, for example, can be an individual psychosocial crisis. But they can also – as with the corona pandemic – be triggered by external events. In such a crisis, a difficult family situation may be exacerbated by having to spend more time together in close quarters, or we may have to battle to save our business. And there are traumatic crises – for example when a person close to us actually gets ill with coronavirus and maybe even dies. But in all three crisis variants there are also opportunities. If I find myself in financial hardship, maybe I will come up with ideas of how to reorganize my business. The death of a loved one can also be an opportunity for growth. So, in a crisis our world may well be turned upside down, but that doesn’t have to be only a bad thing. It may sound trite, but it can be true: In every crisis there’s an opportunity.

Thomas Schlag: Crises really do pose a kind of stress test for many things. What was previously reliable comes unstuck, the tried and tested pathways crumble. The coronavirus has left us gasping for air – whether literally because of medical complications of the virus, or metaphorically because of the difficult circumstances.

What is it about the crisis that leaves us metaphorically gasping for air?

Schlag: The problem is that we don’t really know how to get a grip on this crisis. In an economic crisis or a war there is more room for maneuver, more familiar measures that can be taken. The pandemic – which, interestingly, people also talk of as an enemy, albeit invisible – eludes our grasp. We have no idea how long it will last. Despite the easing of lockdown measures, there is still no real end in sight. The result is a heavy blow to our usual ability to act.

Ehlert: In the current crisis we have all had to accept personal restrictions. I think that is one of the central problems: For us – from the baby boomer generation to today’s children – a life with limitations is a new experience. We are not used to it.

Schlag: We have become aware of our own vulnerability. We theologians always say that we humans are not pulling the strings. That is now becoming clear.

Let’s stay with theology a moment: Plagues and crises play a major role in the Bible. Why is that?

Schlag: The Bible holds up a mirror to primordial human experiences, and personal and collective crises have always been part and parcel of that. They are perfectly illustrated in the story of Job, or in the psalms for example, or the story of the chosen people traveling through the desert, not knowing if they will survive.

What do these stories tell us?

Schlag: They show us the value and dignity of humankind. They raise questions about our reason for being and purpose in life. They are never about a crisis as a historical event. The crises in the Bible are always about the relationship between God and humans. The key question is not whether God caused the crisis, but what we put our faith in and what we can rely on in the crisis. What hope is possible? And where does our own responsibility come in? How should I behave in order to get through the crisis together with others?

What does that mean in the current crisis?

Schlag: It means that you don’t only look after number one, but ask yourself what those around you need. For example I am phoning my parents and my colleagues more often and asking how they are getting on.

Ehlert: A high degree of spirituality, a strong faith, is a significant resource to help people get through personal crises. Countless studies have shown that. Maybe people who believe in God are better able to bear loneliness. Or can more easily come to terms with a financial loss or live with uncertainty. People who are existentially and financially under threat need to be able to draw on resources. Spirituality and faith can help us get through difficult phases in our lives. We have not yet even mentioned people who actually become infected with coronavirus. In some cases they really have to look death in the face. A strong faith can also help when confronting our fear of death.

Ulrike Ehlert, one of your research topics is resilience. Apart from faith and spirituality, what else makes us mentally resilient and helps us overcome crises?

Ehlert: We recently conducted a study on personal crises of women during the time of transition into menopause, from which we developed a model for resilience factors. Optimism, emotional stability, ability to regulate emotions, self-compassion and self-efficacy are important. If I have an optimistic view of the future, then during the corona crisis I might say to myself: “Come on, let’s write this year off – there are no congresses, no trips abroad, you can stay at home and make jam. Just believe in yourself and look after your colleagues and patients.” When I see, for example, that online therapy is working well for my patients, I know I’ve achieved something. That is: I experience myself as having an effect on my own life. That is extremely important. However, we also know that spirituality is an important resource in overcoming crises.

But first we need to believe in ourselves?

Ehlert: As psychotherapists, we try to strengthen patients’ access to those five factors – irrespective of the corona crisis. They are the supporting pillars on which a person with good mental health can build. For a long time I worked in a hospital. And I know from my time there that it can also be incredibly important for severely ill patients if you can help them draw on their faith.

Schlag: For those of us providing pastoral care in the church, self-efficacy also plays an important role. But our emphasis is not so much on doing everything for yourself. Self-efficacy rather means trusting in the fact that you actually can’t control everything. Religion as a resource for resilience means that I am able to balance my abilities and my limitations. Self-efficacy does not just come from within me. It grows in me through my trust in God or a positive religious experience I have had.

So when can we abdicate responsibility and when do we need to act?

Schlag: In religious pastoral care these are very individual decisions. The term “empowerment” has grown in significance in theology. We look at where pastoral care can give people strength – by looking at what resources they already have and where they need support.

Ehlert: If I own a restaurant and need to make sure my business will be able to survive the crisis, faith alone won’t help me much. I really need to be proactive. I have to think of strategies of how I can make the best of the difficult situation, for example by offering take-away meals. When the crisis is over and the restaurant survives, this experience can have a positive effect – because I took effective action in the crisis, I experienced myself as having self-efficacy, which is an enormous boost to my self-confidence.

Schlag: I would never say that in a crisis one just has to trust in God and all will be well. A pious restaurant owner who trusts in God alone would probably have to shut up shop after three months. And of course in times of crisis people can develop good coping strategies without being religious. I don’t argue with that. But faith in God can be a positive source of energy that helps us overcome crises. Having faith in God also means having faith in the future.

How can we train our resilience and equip ourselves for future crises?

Ehlert: One important approach is to strengthen our positive view of the future. For that, you need to already be able to see positives in the here and now, i.e., you are able to recognize positive aspects in a difficult situation. For example, when I work from home I have a wonderful view of the lake. That’s a positive. A homemade meal can taste great – and standing in the kitchen cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, it can also be fun and we can have a chat while doing it. If you focus on the positive aspects of a challenging situation, you will strengthen your own resilience.

Schlag: Professor Ehlert’s words for me reflect the approaches we use in pastoral care of encouragement and unconditional acceptance of the other person. In a religious setting, there is the encouragement given by the counselor or spiritual advisor, but there’s also another dimension – prayer, for example. Counseling as we understand it focuses on potential and not on deficits. For a long time that was not the case. For centuries, the church was synonymous with indoctrination and lack of personal self-determination. Today, I think, we have overcome that.

At the beginning of our conversation you said that crises were also opportunities. Isn’t that a bit of a cliché? How are we supposed to draw something positive from a situation if we are having a really hard time?

Ehlert: You need to be able to distinguish between short-term and long-term consequences. In the short-term, a crisis can be very painful and be associated with changes for the worse. One of my aunts always said: “Where there’s pain, there’s gain.” If you keep this saying in mind, it’s easier to accept the short-term downsides. Another part of resilience is radical acceptance. For all of us, the corona crisis has meant some of our personal freedoms have been curtailed and will continue to be curtailed to some extent for a while. That is a very important aspect of this crisis. It is unpleasant and for some people it may have existential consequences, be they financial or psychological. The emergency situation must be taken seriously, but for those affected by it, life also goes on. In five years we may realize that certain aspects of the crisis were also enriching, that you got to know quite different aspects of yourself. Seen in this way, the crisis is also an opportunity.

Schlag: In a crisis, we tend to reevaluate things. We start to identify what is more important to us and what less. That includes our own relationships and networks. Who is reliable and there for us? For me, the key question is what comes next. Whether the current crisis will also be an opportunity is still difficult to judge. We won’t know that until later. But I hope that as a society we will reflect on what we can learn from the experience of living through this crisis.

What direction should such reflections take?

Schlag: I would hope that many will ask themselves what, for them, constitutes existential quality of life. What really makes life worth living? This is not a new question, but the current crisis has brought it to the fore. Before the party gets going again, we should take time to look inside ourselves and reflect on our own vulnerabilities and the thinness of the ice on which we are always skating. If we think about this in connection with the way we live our lives and the way society is organized, that in itself would be an opportunity seized.

Ehlert: I would also like us to think about what is really important to us. And about how we may have benefited from the slower pace of life caused by the corona crisis. A daily life that is less hectic, less full on, has many advantages for our health, well-being and quality of life. But I think we will probably return to normal pretty quickly.


What makes us strong

Resilience (psychological hardiness) is a dynamic ability that enables people to manage stress and traumatic experiences in such a way that they remain psychologically stable. Characteristics of resilient people are:

  • Self-efficacy (the experience that things that you plan and undertake actually work and lead to success)
  • A facility for self-control
  • The ability to give and accept social support
  • The capacity to learn from difficulties and failures
  • The ability to work on problems
  • Self-compassion
  • Equanimity

In recent years a plethora of self-help books on how to become more resilient has sprung up, for example The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté. The exercises, techniques and methods come from various areas of psychology and psychotherapy such as positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnotherapy. It is possible to identify and train the following resilience skills:

  • Radical acceptance (accepting what cannot be changed)
  • Self-acceptance (accepting yourself as you are)
  • The expectation of self-efficacy
  • Having the locus of control (you have influence over and/or can handle things and situations)
  • Focusing on the positive (noticing and appreciating everyday, small things that are beautiful and good)
  • Having a positive view of the future (optimism)
  • Seeking out, fostering and maintaining social contacts (family members, friends, colleagues)
Text: Ulrike Ehlert

Roger Nickl, Editor UZH Magazin; English translation by Caitlin Stephens

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