Struggling to cope with not knowing where things are heading? We ask the experts how to regain a sense of control in your life, even when it feels like you have…
The events of this year so far have made us all very familiar with the idea of uncertainty. None of us could have predicted the outbreak of a global pandemic that would change our lives beyond recognition, and not knowing how this will continue or the ramifications it will bring in the future has caused emotional turmoil on a world-wide level.
But, worrying about a sense of uncertainty isn’t something new. Many of us thrive on knowing exactly what we’re doing in the days, weeks and even years to come, and like to plan exactly what direction we’re heading in. And so not knowing where we stand – whether in our career, relationship or financial situation – can throw up all sorts of anxious feelings.
So just how can we learn to live with this, and maybe even flourish in times of unknown?
First of all, it’s important to understand how feelings of insecurity impact us and where our desire for control stems from. As Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a performance psychologist and the author of A Mindful Year (dr-aria.com), explains, a yearning for knowledge and safety is hardwired into our very nature.
“From an evolutionary perspective, individuals who were in control of their environment had a higher likelihood of survival and we have therefore developed an intrinsic need to gain and maintain a sense of control,” he explains. “This means that when there’s uncertainty, we can often experience feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, pessimism, hopelessness and helplessness.” In fact, studies have suggested that a sense of control is one of the most important components of a person’s mental wellbeing and a loss or reduced feeling of control has been linked to stress, anxiety disorders, depression, and drug and alcohol addictions.
Research has also shown that this can have a profound impact on our physical health, Dr Aria adds, citing data that suggest issues of low perceived control have even been implicated in cardiovascular disease and cancer recovery.
The key then, is to look at how we can establish a sense of power, even when the unknown seems overwhelming. Experts suggest that focusing on the present moment, looking at what’s important and taking positive steps towards action can all help achieve this.
There’s also the idea that if we can train our minds to look at the unknown as an opportunity for growth and evolution, then we can change the way we approach it.
“Life isn’t always about knowing all the facts – it’s about cultivating and trusting in our intuition too,” says Poppy Delbridge, a life coach and founder of SLAY Retreats (poppydelbridge.com). “Not knowing what’s happening next can feel destabilising and the art of surrendering to the unknown requires some guts and grace! However, when we decide to become curious about the unknown, things start to become easier to swallow, and in some instances even exciting.”
If you’re looking to feel more secure and grounded in times of uncertainty, our experts have the below tips…
Create daily routines and habits: “One of the easiest and simplest ways to create a stronger sense of control in your life is to embed small rituals into your day,” says Dr Aria, who recommends focusing on healthboosting habits that will benefit your mind and body. Perhaps try to incorporate a 15-minute yoga practice into your morning, or set aside time to take a few slow, mindful breaths before going to sleep every night.
Be gentle with yourself: When we’re feeling insecure in our lives, we tend to be harder on ourselves. And this is when, for many of us, our own inner critic starts telling us we’re falling short or failing in some way. But this isn’t the time to listen to the voices in your head. “Research shows that being self-compassionate – and treating ourselves the way we would a good friend – fosters resilience and strong emotional health,” says Dr Aria. “Remind yourself that you’re doing your best, particularly during times overloaded with uncertainty.” Poppy also recommends keeping a record of all the things you are grateful for and looking at it upon waking. “Our brains are really receptive in the mornings so positive actions at this time in the day can set you up for the hours to come,” she says.
Process your feelings: It’s during times of uncertainty that you can start to feel overwhelmed by your worries and in these instances, Poppy advises writing down everything going on in your head. “Getting it all down as a mind blurb on paper helps to disassociate it as a ‘feeling’ not an identity. It’s a way to remind yourself that you are not defined by your worries, they are just there.” Also remember that it’s okay to have these sorts of emotions – don’t beat yourself up if you feel low or need to let out your feelings.
Prioritise your health: If you’re feeling more stress, anxiety or sadness than usual, it’s crucial to look after yourself, says Dr Aria. “Look at the basic blocks of wellbeing: a good night’s sleep, enjoying a nourishing meal, moving your body, engaging in an activity you enjoy, spending some time in nature, and connecting with the people you love,” he advises. “Making even a small change to one of these areas will compound over time leading to meaningful results.”
Expect a bright future: In other words, don’t always expect the worse. “When the future is uncertain, worst-case scenarios tend to pop into our minds,” says Dr Aria. “However, adopting the belief that ‘all will be well’ and visualising positive outcomes can have profound effects. In fact, decades of research has found that optimistic thinkers have healthier hearts and lungs, stronger immune systems, lower risk of depression and anxiety, greater resilience to stress, a higher quality of life and longer lives.” Poppy suggests that focusing on your future and creating a vision for this can also help. “When we have a clear vision, we know that we are going somewhere and, even though things seem all over the place at the moment, we can rest assured that we’re moving forwards,” she says.
Find the opportunity: “The only thing certain in life is the fact there will be times of uncertainty,” says Poppy. “It never goes away so try to accept it and instead see the potential in it.” Dr Aria agrees. “There will always be parts of your life that are outside of your control, such as the state of the economy, the progression of a pandemic, or the security of your job,” he says. “However, there’s also the chance to re-evaluate where you’re primarily placing your headspace and energy. A crisis may bring challenges, but it also brings opportunities.”
For Poppy, becoming clear on your values helps you deal with this. “When you know what your values are you can start to line up your life accordingly, and this helps ground us when the going gets tough.”
Your inner voice can help lift you out of emotional turmoil, or throw you deeper into anxiety. Here, Poppy shows how we can turn certain questions around to help our emotional wellbeing… Instead of asking yourself: Why am I feeling all over the place? Say: What can I do to make myself feel a bit better right now? If we prioritise feeling good, we start to see and attract more good things. For this reason, it’s really important to stop focusing on the negative, breathe deeply and do something that makes us happy to lift our frequency.
Instead of asking yourself: Why has this happened to me?
Say: This has happened, so what small thing am I able to change today?
Small, subtle actions lead to new realities so it’s about finding just one thing that will bring positive change to your day. It could be something as simple as sending an email or phoning someone you know can help.
Instead of saying: I don’t know where to start.
Say: I will start with self-care and my mindset will be in a better place after that.
Trust in yourself and know that you do know where to begin. Follow your intuition by allowing yourself space and time in a personal sanctuary – perhaps have a bath, meditate in a quiet spot or go for a walk in nature.
Instead of saying: I have no one to turn to.
Ask yourself: What would my future self do?
This is a great technique to try if you’re feeling isolated or lost. Be still, go somewhere peaceful that makes you feel calm and ask your future self what they would do if they were in your position right now. This is a version of yourself who has been in your situation and is now available to advise. The aim is to help you trust yourself – you know the answers already, it’s just about allowing them to have a voice.
Instead of saying: I’m panicking and I have no idea what to do.
Ask yourself: How can I create time to think of brilliant ideas?
In difficult times, creativity thrives – just look at the inventions and theories that have come out of wartimes and pandemics. My advice is to try a new creative pursuit, such as weaving, painting or writing – when we stop forcing and squeezing ideas into shape, that’s when they pop up.
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