“I always need to be in control, so how do I cope when everything is so uncertain?”

Posted by for Mental Health

Government legislation, the health of our loved ones and our own mindset have never shifted so quickly. Here, Chloe Gray asks how she can feel more at ease with the unknown. 

I really like to know what’s going on at all times. Whether that’s generally, in the world, or on more of a micro level, understanding every inch of my friends’ schedules. Particularly in my own life, I need to know what is happening. I need to have a plan.

You might call that lacking spontaneity, others might say I have a problem with control – I’m not sure which one is true. But I know that it comes from my desire for independence, to make my own decisions and be in charge of my own schedule. It also comes from a place of self-care, being able to take a birds-eye view of my life to make sure I have a good balance between rest and play. 

But right now, I have lost all sense of control. This is what has made the pandemic so difficult for me, I think. I no longer know what is coming for me, in terms of government restrictions, the health and wellbeing of those I love, or my employment. I can’t plan holidays for 2021, as who knows what this year will bring? I can’t plan to meet my friends for a walk on the weekend, because by then legislation may have changed or that friend may end up isolating. I can’t plan my working day, because who knows what news I might have to react to, or what new rules may change how we’re all feeling? 

"I like to be in charge of my own schedule."

My guaranteed fall-back is having a well-planned workout routine and honestly, even that feels out of my control right now: lockdown fatigue means I have no idea if I am going to wake up full of energy, or with a pounding headache and sore throat that sends me down a health anxiety spiral.

Why do we like to be in control?

Wanting to control things is normal, assures wellbeing psychologist from Birmingham University Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler. The problem is that it is not a fix-all coping strategy. “I believe personally that we’ve become addicted to being in control of things because our locus of control has been much more internalised,” she says. 

“For example, when we didn’t have mobile phones, if your friend didn’t show up when they said they would there was nothing you could do. Now, you call them, text them, find out where they are, change your meeting place or time – you control the situation. If you want something done, you don’t need to find an expert, you go online and do it yourself. We believe that we are responsible for everything.

“But now, the normal strategies we put in place for dealing with our lives can’t exist in the same way, and that elicits a sense of fear, of which the cognitive response to fear is stress.”

That would explain the huge levels of burnout, fatigue and other stress-induced illnesses we are seeing take hold of our generation. A generation that has always been told we are in charge, been given more freedom than ever before, and now, with the exception of our working hours, are not allowed to do anything except sit at home and wait for this to pass.

“Right now, there are so many more things in our sphere of concern, and so many less things in our sphere of influence than we are used to,” explains Dr Semmens-Wheeler. She adds that while people are so used to choices, these are usually choices with small, predictable outcomes. Now, they are dealing with decisions such as how to home school children, whether it’s OK to leave the house and letting vulnerable people into their bubbles, when they have no experience of a risk to reward ratio. 

“There are so many unknowns right now that life is like playing whack-a-mole – as soon as one problem seems to go away, something else comes up. It means we’re struggling to have the confidence in ourselves to cope if we don’t make the right decisions,” says Dr Semmens-Wheeler.

How to feel more in control

The problem is that we are so used to controlling life in such a huge way, whether it’s checking the weather forecast before making plans or scheduling trips years in advance, that “we don’t know how to live in the moment,” says Dr Semmens-Wheeler. “You probably spent so long planning for this year, but you didn’t know you were going to be in a pandemic – so we need to learn to be present in the right now.”

We need to learn to live in the moment, rather than worry about the future.

However, accepting your lack of control in the world doesn’t mean giving up and being unprepared for the future. The difference is flexibility. “There’s a Confusious quote that reads ‘the green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm’,” says Dr Semmens-Wheeler.

“I think he’s referring to pride, and how when we try to strengthen our grip on things we become tense, and that becomes uncomfortable and unhelpful. When we can bend we surrender, and that is much more freeing and relaxing.”

On a practical level, for example, that means that I am now going into the supermarket with a loose plan (“I fancy Thai food”), rather than a full-blown recipe idea (“I am making a green curry with mangetout and mushrooms”) to ease my frustration at not being able to plan things like dinner while the process of food shopping is still so different (queueing outside the local shop for ingredients they might not have).

It also means letting my body dictate what I am going to do. This is harder to get in to, but I have realised that when my body is in charge, that means I am in charge – my body and my brain are not separate entities. So, I have skipped setting a morning alarm, and on the days I am energised enough I will wake up naturally with time to do a workout. On the days I need more rest to deal with the crappy year we find ourselves in, I allow myself that.

And when I look at my calendar with a big question mark over the weekend, I remember that I do not always have to make the best decision right this second, but I can mull it over. And, to ease these ever-changing plans, a wipe-clean weekly planner has become my best friend. I feel I have slightly more control when I can rub out the plans that fall through, be it work, a Zoom quiz or even my daily walks, as though they never existed in the first place. 

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