If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a real hankering to control stuff right now. Not just the normal stuff, like how clean your house is, what time you feed your cat, whether you have a jacket potato for dinner. Nah. I’ve got my controlling sights set on much bigger things.
For starters, I would like to control those protesters in America. I would like to control everyone shouting at each other on social media (everyone is being at least 30% more dickish right now). I would like to control all those people who don’t know the difference between one metre and two. You know, the normal stuff that is totally within reach of one woman with limited funds and limited connections.
Anxiety is intrinsically linked to control. And during these Unprecedented Times™, there’s certainly a lot to worry about. From those working from home to those out on the front line, the unemployed, the self-employed praying for that June bailout and those who are dealing with the sickness itself, everyone is experiencing at least some level of anxiety linked to uncertainty. How many more people will die? What will happen to our jobs? How will this *gestures vaguely* whole thing affect our day-to-day lives in the long run?
The answers to these questions don’t currently exist – not for us, not for politicians, not for experts in the relevant fields – and that’s pretty scary stuff. So, in order to deal, many of us are trying to claw back any feelings of control we once had. The trouble is, lots of us (myself included) are grasping at the wrong things.
"The more that feels out of your control, the more anxious you feel," Amina Ispahani, counsellor and psychotherapist tells me. "And the more anxious we feel, the more we try and control but unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount we can control in this current situation."
This week in particular is especially precarious. After a huge upheaval for everyone, any semblance of normality and certainty we’ve managed to work into our lives over the past two months, whether it's mentally adjusting to your redeployed place of work or finally setting a working from home schedule, is being challenged again as talk increases of lockdown lifting and we brace ourselves to emerge into a world that may look very different indeed.
"It is completely understandable if you’re not 100%," Amina says. "I feel like if you just manage to get through each day [at the moment], that’s a success. You’re using the time well."
None of us can control other people's actions and, to be honest, what an exhausting job that would be. But it’s a natural urge to want to. "A lot of the anxiety that I see coming up is [how to deal with] other people’s responses," Amina tells me. While you can't control them, what you are able to control is your own response. "Think of it like driving a car. Like you have to put your trust in other drivers. You don’t have control over what they do and all you can do is try and be a safe driver yourself." Each time you get panicky about something – someone’s else’s social distancing fail, for instance – bring it back to your own response. "You can control whether you follow the guidelines and wash your hands and maintain social distancing," Amina says. "Take comfort in the fact that you are doing everything you can."
The actions of people around the world – those protesting their 'right' to eschew lockdown, various heads of state with alarming responses to the situation – are even harder to control. As in you just can’t. So work on controlling your response to them instead.
As a side note here, it’s worth remembering that while the world may seem more overwhelming and out of control than ever before, all we used to see was four stories on the six o'clock news and a couple of headlines from the newspaper. Now, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and clickbait headlines, you’re liable to see extreme versions of 50 or more stories in a day. And thanks to social media, a platform that rewards people saying bombastic things, you’re going to see in-depth, sensationalised discussion from non-experts about every one of those stories.
"Control how much information you’re taking in," advises Amina. "News is everywhere, from pop-up notifications, social media, sharing of information with family and friends through conversations… Often people don’t realise this is a big factor that can add to anxiety." Set the boundaries you need for your mental health, she says. "It’s important to be informed but you actually only need a small amount of information to be as informed as you need to get through each day." She recommends limiting your sources to one or two websites like the NHS or gov.uk. Set time limits on how long you spend on websites, ask friends and family to avoid topics you know may be triggering. Switch off notifications and don’t read the news before bed. A bad night’s sleep is only going to make your anxieties worse.
Another thing we might be seeking to control right now is this vague air of uncertainty that’s wafting about. Controlling uncertainty, of course, is a contradiction in itself. Again, the only thing you can control is your response to it. We have to work to accept the uncertainty, Amina says. "Looking for certainty in an uncertain time can hugely exacerbate anxiety." Instead, figure out what in your life you can be certain about. "Say to yourself, for example, 'Right, I will be on lockdown for the next five days and in that time I need to eat, work, sleep, look after my children' – whatever it is." Lean into the certainty of that, she advises, and reassess in another five days. For some, five days might be too much. Do what feels manageable to you.
It’s about stopping yourself spiralling into a thought pattern that will ultimately not benefit you at all. "Ask yourself, 'Do I have control over this situation?'" Amina advises, next time the urge to control something big arises. If the answer is no, then it’s important to affirm to yourself that worrying about the situation isn’t helping you. "Ask yourself, 'Where can I refocus my energy [so it’s channelled] into something I can control and that’s going to be positive for me?'"
Amina is keen to point out that everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. What works for you may be very different from what works for someone else. Equally, it's worth remembering that what works for you one week might not work the next week so don't feel like a failure if your tried-and-tested approach suddenly stops working. "The situation changes every week so of course your response to it is bound to change as well," she says.
The next weeks and months are likely to be a bit of a rollercoaster and everyone's going to have their own individual stuff to deal with. As the lockdown lifts, as talk mounts of the fabled 'second wave', as people deal with economic hardship and piecing their lives back together, everything's likely to feel upside down and – here's that word again – uncertain. One thing's for certain, seeking certainty where there is none will not help. Instead, focus on the things that you can do right now to make your life, and others', a little bit better. I think you'll find you've got a lot more power than you thought.