Life

Dealing with uncertainty: how to regain a sense of control when everything feels so up in the air

The uncertainty of life during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just exhausting – it can be incredibly anxiety-inducing, too. So what can we do to help ourselves feel more in control at such an overwhelming time? We asked the experts for advice.

When the clock struck midnight on 1 January 2020, most of us probably couldn’t have imagined that we’d find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic come April, let alone still be in one by the middle of August.

Although the lockdown has eased considerably since the early days of the pandemic and we’re now able to get back to some bits of normality, we’re still facing a lot of uncertainty about the future when it comes to the economy (especially now we’re officially in a recession) and the risks of a second wave.

“Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen means it’s difficult to control what our responses are going to be,” explains Dr Peter Olusoga, psychology lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. “This is something we’ve never encountered before – a fundamental change in how we’re living our lives – so not having encountered it before means we don’t have those pre-planned responses, we don’t know how we’re going to deal with this stuff, and that produces a lot of anxiety.

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If you’re feeling this way right now, it’s important to remember that it’s OK to feel anxious, worried or upset – and taking the time to process how you’re feeling and indulge in those emotions is a healthy thing to do. But there are also small ways we can help ourselves to establish a sense of control while the uncertainty continues.

One way to do this, Dr Olusoga explains, is by ensuring that we live in the moment – and try as hard as we can to avoid ruminating on and worrying about what’s to come. There’s no denying that doing this is incredibly difficult – especially if you’re worried about the security of your housing or employment – but any time you can redirect your focus from the future to the present will help you to stop your anxiety levels from rising.

A woman worrying
“Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen means it’s difficult to control what our responses are going to be.”

“It’s about trying to focus on what’s happening right now – in the moment,” says Dr Olusoga. “That’s a really difficult thing to ask people to do when there’s so much information flying around and there’s so much worry and concern of what’s going to happen in the future, but if we can, try and focus on what’s important now and what’s happening now. It’s about staying present really, and making decisions based on what needs doing in the moment. That’s the best way that we can maintain a little bit of a sense of control.”

He continues: “It sounds quite cliché, but it’s about controlling the controllable. There’s so much out there at the moment that’s not controllable, and if we focus on that stuff, then that’s what leads to stress and anxiety, because there’s nothing we can do.”

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Staying in the moment is a challenging skill which requires a lot of practice to master – especially when your anxiety levels are already pretty high. Mindfulness meditations are designed to teach you how to do this – apps such as Headspace and Calm guide you through short exercises which help you to identify when your brain is wandering and how to bring it back. 

Another way to focus on the here and how is to get yourself into a daily routine, in order to give yourself something to focus on every day. It may sound trivial, but getting into that rhythm can be a great way to help you adjust to your temporary way of life during the outbreak period.

“To help regain a sense of control and fill your time so that you’re not tempted to news-check every few minutes, decide on your (adjusted) daily routine by planning your time,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. “It’s often helpful to write this down as the act of writing itself has been shown in research studies to boost perceived control, self-efficacy and mood.”

A woman writing
“To help regain a sense of control and fill your time so that you’re not tempted to news-check every few minutes, decide on your (adjusted) daily routine by planning your time.”

She continues: “Try to stick to a regular routine with set wake, bed and mealtimes. Reaching out to others will also help to manage anxiety and allow you to accept uneasy feelings of being in limbo, which otherwise can go unchecked.”

Although it can be hard to distract ourselves from the anxiety we’re feeling right now – especially if it’s related to our job security or financial situation – it’s important that we allow ourselves time to relax and continue to build healthy habits which will help us in the long run. After all, no one knows what’s going to happen over the next couple of months – for now, all we can do is focus on the day-to-day.

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

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