Any situation that we didn’t predict, we didn’t choose, or we can’t control, increases our stress levels.
Receiving news that we are losing our job, need fertility treatment, or have an ill parent are real-life examples of those life altering and stressful situations.
Now add a global pandemic to the mix. Suddenly, job interviews disappear, fertility treatments are postponed, our ill parent can’t go near a hospital, and our daily life is suspended while we work and stay at home.
How do we deal with the loss of control when our brain seems to be designed to take control?
The first step is to accept that we, as individuals, cannot control natural disasters. Like fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves – pandemics are natural disasters too. This is where our survival instincts kick in, our energy for control will have to be narrowed to protecting ourselves and our loved ones as best we can – not controlling or halting the disaster.
Some of my patients have told me they feel guilty focusing so much energy on protecting themselves and their loved ones right now when they see so many frontline workers putting their life on the line and so many people falling sick every day through the media.
Which brings me to my second step, to accept how you feel and that it’s ok to want to focus on yourself. Does this mean that we are overly absorbed in our personal troubles or too selfish to care about the country as a whole? No. It just means our brain is on overdrive trying to figure out how to stay safe and sane during this time.
So, what can you do when it’s our natural instinct to try and control everything?
Here are seven ways to accept the loss of control, how to gain some normalcy back, and tips to channel your desire to help out into productive and meaningful projects.
- Increase your sense of control over the small stuff – Start by choosing a project for each week if time allows. Don’t pick something overwhelming like cleaning your garage, instead find a 30-minute project that is easy to manage. Clean your wallet, reorganize kitchen drawers, file your tax receipts, delete unwanted phone contacts, paint at the kitchen table, or research a new recipe! If you do pick a larger project, plan out how much you’ll do each day or week. Our brain responds to organization actions the same way it does when we have control over something.
- Keep things predictable at home – Create routines, schedules, rhythms, and repetitions. Even if you are sequestered alone, write plans for the next day and post them on the refrigerator, where you will be sure to see them. Our mind and body crave routines because it helps us control what’s going to happen next.
- And especially at bedtime – Bedtimes are especially important when you are home full-time because for every hour that our sleep patterns are thrown off, it takes an additional 24 hours for the body to readjust. So even if you feel the quarantine work from home plan seems to have thrown a wrench in your normal schedule, push yourself to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Remember, the body needs early morning light to reset its biological clock. Easier said than done, but if you wake up tired, plan to go to bed earlier tonight rather than sleeping in now.
- Avoid frustration triggers – When your natural desire to be in control is challenged, try to avoid things that will cause additional frustration. This could be the news or a friend who only talks about the mortality rates and the number of COVID cases. Instead, limit your dose by giving yourself a window of when to tune into the news. This will help keep your frustration and anxiety down while still being informed.
- Give yourself a pep talk – Talking to yourself can help lift your mood. It can be as simple as writing yourself an email filled with encouraging words, a sticky note with compliments on your bathroom mirror, or saying positive mantras out loud. This is a habit that must be learned and will certainly help make you stronger in the end.
- Carve out time for family and friends – Reach out, send humor or sympathy as needed, and just show you are there for your loved ones. The interaction can help boost our mood and it’s important to stay connected now more than ever.
- Get involved, if you want to – If your city has shared experiences like New York’s 7:00 pm applause and pot banging for medical responders/healthcare workers, join in the event! You may not have a great sense of control right now, but you will have a sense of community.
Control is a hard thing to give up, especially in a time as stressful as this. But as challenging as it may be to sit home and wait, there are small things we can do to regain our sense of control that will help us all get through this together.