How to cope when life circumstances are throwing you for a loop.
Sometimes you cruise along in life feeling like you’ve got everything under control. And sometimes — you don’t. In the past year and a half, many people have been struggling amid the pandemic with uncertainty about what the future will hold.
For the human brain, the loss of control creates a particularly potent type of stress and may impair its ability to accurately assess risk. This is why someone might worry more about encountering a shark when swimming than about driving home after drinking — despite the fact that the latter is far riskier, says Andrea Roberts, a senior research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Even though buzzed driving is super hazardous, they may worry a lot more about a shark encounter because they feel like they have less control over the situation," she says.
While the pandemic is one example of a stressful event that you can’t control, you might experience similar emotions if you’re dealing with illness, such as cancer. Women are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder after a cancer diagnosis not only from the stress of the experience, but also following treatment, from worrying about a recurrence, says Roberts. Stress from a lack of control may also arise from financial uncertainties or relationship upheaval.
"The duration of uncertainty may also play a role," says Archana Basu, a psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and a research scientist at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "For instance, the pandemic has been going on for many months, and there is a sense of ‘decision-making fatigue’ for many of us. There has been a prolonged period of uncertainty, changes in risk assessments. The pandemic has affected us in numerous other ways, leaving many of us feeling worn out."
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to live in a world that allows you to maintain full control at all times. But there are ways to lessen the uncertainty load. Below are some tips that can help.
Focus on what you can control, instead of what you can’t. You may not be able to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, but you can take action to better protect yourself, such has getting vaccinated and wearing a mask indoors when community spread is elevated. "We can remind ourselves of our personal history of self-efficacy," says Basu. "We may not have all the answers, but we can figure out some solutions or ways to get more information."
Simplify, simplify, simplify. When life feels overwhelming, pare down. "Think about what can be defer="defer"red, reduced, or perhaps even eliminated," says Basu. "Where can we make things simpler or more streamlined for ourselves? How might we give ourselves the gift of time, rest, or simply the reprieve that comes with even one less decision?" she says.
Set healthy limits. It’s normal to want to seek information when you’re dealing with uncertainty. "It allows us to assess a situation and to make choices," says Basu. But thinking about something endlessly, spending too much time online searching for information, or "doomscrolling" (relentlessly staying on social media despite the fact that it’s making you anxious) isn’t helpful.
"This might be the case if you often feel that you’d rather be doing something else, but you’re doing this anyway," says Roberts.
Set limits and boundaries on how much time you devote to this task. To break the pattern, force yourself to step away from the activity, even for a minute.
"Remove yourself physically," says Roberts. "Then assess how you feel."
You can decide to return to the activity, but stepping away forces you to recognize that this is an active decision to continue.
Reframe the situation. Remember, uncertainty doesn’t guarantee bad outcomes, says Basu. "Uncertainty implies that we just don’t know enough right now. We can remind ourselves that uncertainty can be a catalyst for positive change," she says.
Accept uncertainty. "There are many elements of the pandemic, and of our lives in general, that are uncertain and out of our control," says Basu. "Acceptance of uncertainty is a key part of coping." But keep in mind that this is a learned skill that takes practice.
Take care of your overall mental health. Consider reaching out for professional mental health support, particularly if you have consistent concerns that are affecting your relationships or your ability to work, attend school, or fulfill other responsibilities, says Basu. Speaking to your primary care physician is a helpful first step.
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