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How to regain control when life is overwhelming

Last updated on 
January 12, 2021

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Traditionally, January marks a new beginning – an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It’s a time for planning, for positive resolutions, for feeling inspired. This January, however, it’s fair to say many of us are feeling pretty flat. The past year has exhausted us in so many ways we’ve had to develop a whole new lexicon for it: “pandemic fatigue”, “lockdown blues”, “Zoom fatigue”. While the vaccine offers hope, the old “normal” still remains elusive, and 2021 will be, at the very least, another year of uncertainty. Feeling trapped, tired and powerless isn’t how any of us want to start the year – so how can we regain our sense of control and agency?

The importance of self-determination for our wellbeing

Living with the COVID-19 pandemic has had a stark effect on our collective mental health. Aside from the immediate existential threat of the pandemic, being confined to our homes and restricted from seeing loved ones has completely undermined our sense of agency agency. Being forced to continually question decisions that were once mundane – like whether we really need to go to the shops, or whether we’re standing too close to a stranger – have also stripped away our sense of conviction and determination. And of course, the frustration of not being able to live our lives the way we want makes us feel sad and directionless.

But if we could isolate one overarching reason for why 2020 was such a grim year, it might be that it stole away our autonomy. This is where the theory of self-determination comes in – the idea that, as human beings, we have an innate need to feel in control. The desire to feel autonomous isn’t limited to human beings, and science tells us that restricting an animal’s movements also results in significant feelings of stress. But in humans, the loss of autonomy is especially strongly felt when it relates to losing a control that we once had. This is why so many of us struggled in 2020; we lost the ability to do the things we once took for granted.

The perception of our own autonomy – or lack thereof – is often more important than the reality, and this perception of control can affect our wellbeing more than the loss of control itself. While people who feel powerless tend to show a greater risk of sickness and death, the effects can worm their way into all aspects of our lives. When we experience stress that we have no control over, we experience learned helplessness; we stop trying to fight off the danger and submissively accept whatever harm transpires. Trying to build any sense of control after this can be extremely difficult.

Strategies for restoring autonomy and control

After nearly a year of restrictions, lockdowns, canceled plans and government u-turns, our feelings of powerlessness have ebbed and flowed – and as 2021 unfolds, we still don’t know how much longer this situation will continue. We can’t rely on the same coping mechanisms that we used at the start of 2020: shock, adrenaline, urgency, the idea of “pulling together”, and short-term hope. Now, as well as feeling powerless, we’re tired of it all. We feel disconnected and bored, and so we need to also draw upon our strength and stamina to get through the last stretch. So what are some of the small but useful ways we can regain control and energy?

1. Develop active coping strategies

Coping strategies fall into two categories: active and passive. Active strategies involve engaging with our stresses, whether through seeking support, problem-solving, humor, relaxation or physical exercises. Passive strategies involve things like avoidance or denial – but skirting around issues is considerably less effective than confronting them. Engaged strategies like expressing emotions or practising calming activities like yoga or meditation are positively related to perceived control. Not only do they help us actually deal with the negative emotions we’re feeling, they also can help restore a personal sense of autonomy and agency,which we could all use right now.

2. Reset your expectations

Another way to restore a sense of control is to reset your expectations. While there are many things out of our control right now, that doesn't mean we’re powerless. If you can’t head back to the office right now, you can still control your schedule from home, or set your own work-life boundaries. Look at what’s actually within your power and what isn’t – and then, only try to control what you’re able to, and be flexible about what you can’t. Be realistic about what you can and can’t achieve right now, and if that means resetting your expectations, try to embrace that. You may have to lower your standards, or accept that you’re just not as productive as you were pre-pandemic. It may not be ideal, but ultimately, getting through a global pandemic was never going to be easy.

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3. Focus on building resilience

If a lack of autonomy can be isolated as one of the defining reasons we struggled in 2020, resilience can be viewed as the fundamental quality for getting through it. Building emotional resilience is an effective way to manage feelings of uncertainty and restore a sense of control, and while some people may be more resilient than others, it’s also a trait that can be learned. As we’ve already examined, a lot of events remain out of our control right now – but we can control how we react to these events. Try building emotional resilience by practising CBT and mindfulness, getting regular exercise, and breathing. These may sound like small steps, but remember that emotional resilience is all about managing your mind. Once you’re in control of that, you’ll find the strength to get through this last stretch.

4. Energize yourself and others

When life is stagnant, we feel stagnant too, and it can be hard to find the energy to keep going when we don’t have a clearly-defined end in sight. So try to keep energized – and enegerize others around you too. Harvard Business Review suggests “sharing success stories, setting up competitions, dividing long projects into sprints, shortening zoom meetings, cutting tumbleweed projects, and allowing constructive conflicts and honest feedback in your teams.” Create opportunities for creative sparring, protect space for team socializing and, above all, watch out for one another.

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