Feeling anxious: how sisu can help you deal with uncertainty

Posted by for Wellbeing

Could a perspective on life from the happiest country in the world help us deal with all the uncertainty we’re currently facing? 

If there’s one thing that Finland does well – apart from saunas, superfoods and sustainability – it’s wellness. Voted the happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report, their optimistic and positive outlook on life is often a source of inspiration for the rest of the globe. With the country housing more saunas than cars, a total of 188,000 lakes and a shared lust for the outdoors, it’s no wonder they’ve got the lowest stress and anxiety levels of any country in the world. While we may not be able to compete geographically, we can certainly learn a thing or two from their perspective on extreme perseverance and dignity in the face of challenging times – also known as sisu.

“Sisu is something that makes you push through no matter what,” says Finland native Riikka Heinhaaho. “Personally, my life could be falling apart, but you have no choice but to keep going. When it’s 6am in January, pitch-black and freezing cold (-30 degrees Celsius), it’s snowing and you have to go to work – a lot of people wouldn’t bother, but that doesn’t happen in Finland. Everyone sees the bigger picture which is: ‘if I don’t go to work, the work won’t get done and I won’t get paid.”

While dragging ourselves out of bed in winter is also a familiar scenario for us Brits, most of us aren’t happy in the process. But, adopting a more hardy approach to our daily routine could be useful in times of uncertainty. “All of us have had moments in our lives where we feel like we’ve reached our mental or physical limit, but we have no choice but to continue. And sometimes in those situations, we can surprise ourselves by how resilient we are and what we are capable of,” explains Justyn Barnes, author of Sisu, Volume 2: Find Your Resilience the Finnish Way. “This hidden inner-power source that helps people to persevere, and to overcome adversity and seemingly insurmountable problems is sisu. Although the first written instances of the word occurred in the 1500s, and early definitions predominantly linked it to gutsiness, nowadays it’s thought of more as an action mindset; a problem-solving mindset that reframes challenges as opportunities to grow. Where you pursue solutions with tenacity and creativity.”

Lockdown bakers and knitters, take a bow. But, there’s more to tackling tough times and uncertain futures than a crocheted throw. “Resiliency is the ability to adapt in the face of a disruption. It is not about being strong, gritting your teeth or being mentally tough. It is the ability to deal with something that you never wanted to happen,” says Dr Carole Pemberton, an executive coach with a special interest in resilience.“ 

This has never been more apparent than during COVID-19. We are being asked to change how we work, how we interact with our friends and family and to change our daily habits for an unforeseeable amount of time.These are major disruptions and they require us to be resilient in order to not become depressed, anxious or fearful.”

A woman working from home
Feeling anxious: “sisu can be particularly helpful in times of uncertainty because it gives you the confidence that things will get better”

While humans are renowned for their ability to adapt, Dr Carole says that the process isn’t instant. “When our lives are turned upside down, we go through a well established psychological pattern. Firstly, we experience fear and uncertainty – we saw it in the emptying of supermarket shelves, and the obsessive watching of news. Then we experience the emotional impact of the change – we may experience anger from not being able to live as we want, or depression from feeling that the life we have grown accustomed to has been taken away. If we can move beyond those stages, we move into adaptation – accepting what we cannot change, and instead, looking at how we can make it work for us. It is here that the enormous creativity that we have seen during lockdown emerges. 

We adapt to working from home or filling our day with other activities besides work – creating challenges for ourselves. All of this supports our resilience and enables us to establish a ‘new normal’ that will support us until life moves into a new phase. Without resilience, we risk being immobilised by our emotions.”

As difficult as it is to retain any form of optimism when your day seems to be filled with bad news, practising resilience is not too different from strengthening a muscle – helping us to become stronger every time our adaptability is tested, according to Dr Carole. In fact, evidence has shown that over time, our resilience grows. “Sisu can be particularly helpful in times of uncertainty because it gives you the confidence that things will get better,” Justyn says. “It’s not blind optimism, but optimism based on your experience that you can deal with anything that life throws at you and find a way to get through it. There’s a quote in my book from the foremost sisu academic researcher Emilia Lahti who says that “sisu means you don’t see a silver lining, but you jump into the storm anyway.” 

Often, we don’t have the answer to complicated problems, but by nurturing our sisu, we can find the courage to face up to them and find the resilience to persist, exploring all avenues to find solutions. The coronavirus lockdown requires some mental strength and resilience to keep doing the right things day after day, and that’s where sisu comes in.” 

8 ways to be more sisu

Experts share their tips on testing your resilience and powering through uncertainty:

  1. “Make a habit of doing the thing you need to most, first each day – the rest of the day will be downhill.” –Justyn
  2. “Do not expend emotional energy on things you cannot control.” –Dr Carole 
  3. “Be realistic and hopeful. Build a vision of where you want to get to, plan how to get there and then act.” –Justyn 
  4. “Dare to fail. With a sisu state of mind, we are not afraid to try something ambitious and fail, because we know we will learn from the experience, adapt and improve.” –Justyn 
  5. “Never think of your ability as fixed. Sisu gives you the courage and can-do attitude to improve your skills.” –Justyn 
  6. “Reach out. A sisu mindset fosters a high degree of self-sufficiency, but it also takes sisu to have the courage to open up and share personal problems.” –Justyn 
  7. “Develop your positive emotions each day by recognising what you can be grateful for.” –Dr Carole 
  8. “You have to see the bigger picture and realise that ‘this is not forever’. Be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself.” –Riikka

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IMAGES: Getty, Kaboom Pics

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