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Dealing with Uncontrollable Circumstances (Or – Don’t worry worry until worry worries you).

By Dr Sima Patel

‘When you stop worrying about what you cannot control, you have time to change the things you can control. And that changes everything.’

One cannot underestimate the importance of human beings wanting to have control over their lives. Yet we now find ourselves living in uncontrollable circumstances. We have been thrown off course and have to continually adjust to new ways of living under Covid-19 For many it is a struggle to merely survive. How can we manage in these times to look after our emotional and mental wellbeing? First, we need to remind ourselves that we have always had limits to our own control. For example, we are unable to control the weather, other people’s reactions to us or what they think of us or even our own thoughts which can sometimes spiral out of control and jump to all sorts of conclusions without any evidence to back them up. Sometimes, we cannot even control our ability to fall asleep. In these situations, it seems that absurdly, letting go of control, seems to be the only way forward as there is nothing we can do to change the situation.

Letting go is not the same as giving up and it is important to acknowledge this. We can still have control over the way we deal with emotional experiences, find alternative ways of viewing or understanding situations or engage in activities to cope with the consequences.

One solution to developing a ‘healthy’ level of personal control is to gain an accurate understanding of one’s possibilities and limits of control. This will enable us to invest our time and energy in actions that lie within the spheres of personal control and avoid wasting time on actions that we are unable to control, especially when, within what time frame and how each of us will be able to come out of ‘Covid-19 lockdown’.

Try out the following activity to find out what you can learn about yourself and reflect on how this makes you feel.

Ask yourself what you would like to change and write this down in a positive statement rather than negative. For example, ‘I want to feel productive during Covid -19 lockdown when I am unable to go to work’ rather than, ‘I want to stop feeling useless whilst I am unable to work’.

Draw a large circle on a sheet of paper and within that shape, write a list of all the things you are able to control to achieve your desired aspiration. For example, you could ask yourself what being productive means to you. It could be a spring clean, reading a book, learning a new language or hobby or helping out vulnerable neighbours during this time.

On another sheet of paper, draw a circle and write down all the things that lie beyond your control in achieving the above aspiration. For example, it could be that neighbours have not needed your help so far and this makes you feel useless.

Look at your list of controllable actions and ask yourself to recall times when you actively took part in some of the tasks and write down your examples. Then ask yourself what steps you took to action those behaviours. How did you deal with the things that were in your personal control? Did you complete them or give up half way? Write a list of all your actions that were helpful and then a list of actions that were unhelpful. If you did not embark on your desired change, what prevented you?

Now look at your list on uncontrollable situations. Can you recall times when you tried to take control over any of these situations and if so, write them down. What effect did trying to take control have when you actually had no control over them?

Look at your list again and ask yourself if you were able to just ‘let go’ of what you wanted to achieve. This does not mean that you gave up, it means that you made a conscious effort to let go, knowing that you were unable to have control over the situation. How did you manage to let go in the past? What can you do to let go of things that are not in your control right now, during Covid-19? As you reflect on your feelings and behaviours, consider if you were using effective or ineffective ways of coping.

Ineffective coping includes:

  • Constantly wishing you could have control and change the situation or even the behaviour of others.
  • Denying responsibility and relinquishing this to others and then feeling helpless.
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from challenging activities or even emotions.
  • Constantly complaining to others to get empathy or elicit unnecessary help.

Effective ways of coping are going to be essential during these times of Covid -19 lockdown. The following may help:

  • Research shows that during low control situations, dealing with emotions and feelings that are present (emotion-focussed coping) rather than trying to control aspects of the environment (problem-focussed coping) is more helpful.
  • Communicating one’s feelings and emotions is important but not with a view to gain excess empathy or manipulate others.
  • Acknowledging that you have little or no influence over the external circumstance. However, you do have a choice in how to deal with your feelings and then the actions you take to cope with the situation.

Rather than seeing yourself as failing, tell yourself that you have made a conscious decision to let go, knowing you are unable to control the current circumstances. Dr Sima Patel Chartered Psychologist and Coach

Posted in Wellbeing, Wellbeing Practice on Jun 01, 2020