Life

How to regain a sense of control when everything feels so uncertain

As the coronavirus outbreak leaves us wondering how long it will be until things get back to normal, many of us are feeling anxious about all the uncertainty. How can we regain some sense of control? 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. Since the first cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed in the UK at the beginning of February, the number of people infected by the virus has continued to rise – 103,093 have now tested positive for coronavirus, with 13,729 confirmed deaths.

Although experts have now said we may be nearing the peak of the outbreak as the number of new cases begin to flatten, chief medical officer Chris Witty has said that it is too soon to lift lockdown restrictions on social activities, and ministers are expected to announce a further three weeks of lockdown later today.

There’s no denying that the constant news updates and general uncertainty surrounding the virus is making a lot of us feel rather anxious – and with no one quite knowing what impact coronavirus is going to have on the economy and people’s wellbeing, we’re not short of things to worry about.

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With all this considered, it’s likely that many people may be struggling to deal with the sense of powerlessness which comes from a situation like this. Coronavirus has left the UK in limbo, and as events continue to be cancelled or postponed and we sit waiting for the next virus-related update, it can feel like we’ve lost all control over our lives – a feeling which is, of course, incredibly anxiety inducing.

“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 going to be living our lives for the next couple of months – 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.”

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

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 an emotionally healthy thing. 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.

“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, and schedule both work and social interactions over the phone or video calling to prevent feelings of isolation. 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.”

Finally, a great way to regain a sense of control during such an uncertain period is by taking action. Of course, there are limitations on how much you can help people when you’re social distancing, but getting involved in local community projects, helping out those who are elderly or vulnerable to the disease and being kind on social media can all make a difference – and can help us to build resilience in the face of uncertainty.

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“Building resilience is about building community,” Dr Olusoga says. 

“The fights in supermarkets and the hoarding of goods are making all the bad headlines, but actually there’s a lot of work going on in communities right now. There’s a lot of people building social networks they didn’t necessarily have before, there’s a lot of street-based WhatsApp groups that are cropping up – I’m part of one myself. It’s just about reaching out and trying to build that support network, and developing this kind of group level resilience.”

To find out more about how you can help people during the coronavirus outbreak, check out our guide here.

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