Humans inherently hate uncertainty. We want to anticipate what is coming and be ready for it.
There is a good reason for this hatred because uncertainty makes us feel unsafe. Long before we had anxiety about work, family, or money, we used to escape predators. Our survival instinct is programmed to ensure we won’t run into a danger zone.
So when we are faced with an uncertain situation, we feel out of control, and our fight, flight, or freeze responses get triggered.
Philosophers have long discussed the mindset one should adopt in the face of adversity and uncertainty. From Stoics to modern philosophers like Bertrand Russell, many believed in accepting uncertainty as a part of our lives.
So how can we restore our sense of control in uncertain times?
What causes people to lose their sense of control?
Restrictions: Feeling trapped is one of the primary reasons we lose our sense of control. Scientists discovered that when we can’t act freely, our bodies release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Therefore, being unable to change our situation or break free of physical restrictions causes us to feel anxious and afraid, increasing our stress levels.
Negative thought patterns: Cynical beliefs about one’s abilities to cope or the state of the world can cause feelings of helplessness. When people live with negative thought patterns that lead them to believe they don’t have control over anything that happens, this perception becomes self-fulfilling. Our brains are wired to listen to our thoughts and commands, so repeating thought patterns affect our life.
For example, if one believes no one cares about them and they will be lonely the rest of their life, they unconsciously start pushing people away.
A study was done on the role of “perceived control” in re-employment after redundancy. People with lower levels of perceived control had higher risks of remaining unemployed 12 months after redundancy. This study is a good example of the importance of self-confidence and personal autonomy. The latter can only be restored when one believes in their abilities and practices positive self-talk.
External factors: The Covid-19 pandemic has put a lot into perspective for people worldwide. Similarly, issues such as climate change, terrorism, or war are external factors that are way beyond an individual’s control. Feeling powerless in the face of such issues is a universal experience. However, a study published by American Psychology Association showed that study participants restored their sense of autonomy long before the pandemic was over. This may be because a collective experience is easier to cope with.
Mental health disorders: People dealing with anxiety, depression, and addiction also feel like they don’t have control over their life, feelings, or actions. Depressed people feel incapable of changing their situation or think there is no reason to do so. People experiencing anxiety have difficulty coping with uncertainty and losing control over various things depending on their type of anxiety. People with addiction issues may go out of their way to engage in behaviors their addiction causes without actually meaning to do them.
1. Confront the reality of your situation
Studies show that people who avoid their problems rather than acknowledging and engaging with them are worse off psychologically and have a lower sense of control. So the first step in restoring your sense of control in a difficult situation or mindset is acknowledging it. Whether it’s losing your job, a loved one, or your mental well-being, you must make peace with your experience.
2. Understand and sit with your feelings
Once you know your situation, the next step is to understand your emotions and be aware of your thought patterns. Understanding one’s feelings can look different for everyone. Methods such as journaling, meditating, talking to someone, and expressing your feelings in an art form can become helpful coping mechanisms and tools to understand your emotions better.
3. Seek a solution that would work for you
Once you know your situation and understand where your feelings are coming from, you can change your negative thought patterns about feeling out of control. A useful exercise then is to seek a solution that can change or better your situation.
4. Restore your sense of self-confidence
When you decide how you can start changing your mindset or situation, you must restore your sense of self-confidence and autonomy. Consider a time when you overcame adversity, no matter how small. Reminding yourself of your capabilities or even the possibility that one day you may overcome your current situation will give you the ability to look at your life from an outer point of view and to move forward.
5. Work on things you can change
Not all life events have a solution. For example, you can’t bring back a loved one to life or reconfigure a health condition. So instead of focusing on what you cannot change, starting to make small changes can give you a sense of control. For example, making time to do things you love or changing your routine slightly to take care of yourself can help you establish a sense of control and optimism.
6. Connect with people who share your experience
Going through a difficult time can make us feel incredibly lonely. Our closest friends and family members may seem like strangers who don’t understand our struggle. This can make us feel isolated and even less in control as we don’t feel part of our social circle anymore. Group therapy and connecting with people who go through similar experiences can put things into perspective and reintroduce a sense of belonging.
7. Practice setting healthy boundaries
If you are experiencing that you are losing your sense of control because of someone or something, you must practice setting healthy boundaries. Whether it’s a toxic living situation, an inconsiderate friend, a bullying boss, or anything else, setting healthy boundaries can tremendously change your situation. It can improve your self-confidence and help you take back control.
If you are exposed to toxicity by your own doing (i.e., scrolling social media, engaging with a certain group of people, or getting exposed to negative news on media), you must limit your exposure to reinforce a sense of control in your life.
8. Set achievable actions and realistic expectations
Setting our expectations high is a killer of motivation to feel or do better. For example, if you are struggling with alcohol addiction, you can’t expect to suddenly get better by limiting your consumption to one day a week. Recognizing a problem’s seriousness, setting achievable actions to overcome it, and committing to them is a sure way to restore your sense of control.
9. Focus on the present and find moments of gratefulness
When we are going through tough experiences, it’s common to either feel guilty “because others have it harder” or victimized because “our life is unfair”. Focusing on the present and finding even the simplest reasons for gratitude, such as “despite it all, I’m healthy” or “I have a family who loves me” can unlock a positive perspective, which also helps you restore your sense of control.
You are more likely to feel grateful when you stop comparing yourself to others. As Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy.” So it’s important to find things you appreciate about yourself, your life, and our world.
10. Remember the power of time
Feeling desperate and like we have no way out entraps us in a feeling of loss of control and meaninglessness. Remembering the passing of time and feelings can help you cope with difficult emotions and experiences. At the end of every day, it’s important to realize that we aren’t immortal, and suffering won’t be our sole experience.
At Tikvah Lake, we believe rehabilitation has the power to resurface the most authentic, healed parts of our patients. Our treatments aim to treat the whole person, not just the addiction or mental health problem. If you or someone you know is struggling, contact us today to speak to a specialist about how they can help.