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

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

From the worsening cost-of-living to the climate crisis everything feels rather… chaotic right now. So what can we do to help ourselves feel more in control at such an overwhelming time? We asked the experts for advice.

It may have been a while since things felt calm, but life is feeling particularly chaotic right now. You only need to take a look at the BBC News homepage to get a sense of how all-over-the-place the world is right now: from the worsening cost-of-living to the ongoing NHS crisis, it’s begun to feel like the UK is simply bouncing from one crisis to another.

If one thing’s for sure, the return of certainty we hoped for after the peak of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t materialised – and it’s no surprise that we’re all feeling so on edge.

At the moment, it’s hard to predict what will happen over the course of the next week, let alone the next month or year. And it’s this – coupled with the lack of control many of us feel – which is making everything feel so intense. 

“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. “When we’ve never encountered something before, we don’t have those pre-planned responses or know how we’re going to deal with what’s in front of us, and that produces a lot of anxiety.” 

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 what the current economic turmoil will mean for you and your family – but any time you can redirect your focus from the future to the present will help you to stop your anxiety levels from rising.

“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.”

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

Another way to focus on the here and now 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 worry every few minutes, try planning your time,” suggests 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.”

“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, 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 the unprecedented weather or rising bills – 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 or years – for now, as always, all we can do is focus on the day-to-day.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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