Our brains love to feel as if we’re in control. But the harsh truth is we can’t control everything. So how do we stop wasting our energy stressing about the stuff we can’t control? Dr Elissa Epel explains it all.
Do you like feeling as if you’re in control? Same here. It’s a classic feature of our human brains: the desire for feeling some sense of predictability, of having a hand in how things play out.
The problem is, life isn’t predictable. All too many things are outside of our control. So while we could try to tackle anxiety and stress by attempting to grip on tightly to everything we can, that’s a doomed mission. No matter how rigidly you clasp, your life will be hit with unexpected bumps in the road, plot-twists and crises that are not within our remit to sort out (take the Covid pandemic, for example).
So the better approach to handling all this is not to try to control everything, but to become OK even when things do go wrong. To be comfortable with life’s unpredictability and our ultimate inability to control much of it at all.
“We can try to over-control certain situations in our life and will surely become unhappy, discontent and exhausted,” Dr Elissa Epel, psychologist and author of The Seven-Day Stress Prescription, tells Stylist.
Being in control of some parts of your life is a wonderful thing. It’s only when we try to control the uncontrollable, or we spend mental and emotional energy worrying about the things that are out of our hands, that it becomes a problem.
Why we crave control
“The human brain desires predictability,” Dr Epel explains. “Feeling ‘in control’ can reduce stress, especially chronic toxic stress. You still encounter stressful events, of course, but when you have a sense of power over your day, you are more equipped to experience a healthy peak-and-recovery stress response, with a quick return to baseline, that benefits your mind and body.
“Meanwhile, a person who feels they have no say in the flow of their day, their work or important conditions of their life may experience the opposite in response to the same type of stressors: a threat response that peaks but never resolves; a constant, chronic state of stress born of uncertainty and powerlessness.”
The importance of working out what’s in your control and what isn’t
The first step in having a healthier approach to stress and the need for control is simple: work out exactly what’s in your power to manage and what’s not.
“We control much less than we think we do,” Dr Epel tells us. “We don’t control events, other people and outcomes of things we try to influence. We do control how we respond to events, and that’s where we can focus our efforts to build stress resilience.”
She recommends doing what she calls a Stress In My Life Assessment to get started. Grab a pen and paper and write down every single thing that’s causing you stress right now, big or small. Then go through the list and sort each item into one of two buckets: within your control and out of your control. Be honest with yourself about this – you might like to think that everything is up to you, but is it really? Are there things you’re worrying about that you don’t have a chance of sorting alone?
“Something that can help you immediately is to become more aware of where your mental energy is going,” Dr Epel advises. “You have limited bandwidth; attention is a precious limited resource. Notice when you’re spending a lot of time anticipating something that hasn’t happened, or ruminating about something that already has. When something is sucking up your mental bandwidth, ask yourself: is this something that’s in my control?”
If you’re stressed about something that isn’t in your power to change, it’s time to ask yourself the big question: what’s the point in worrying about this?
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From there, it’s time to practise acceptance – and yes, it is something you’ll need to practise. “We probably need to do it over and over,” Dr Epel notes.
It can help to first recognise that chasing control has a negative impact on our mental health. “Control is great when you have it,” Dr Epel writes in her book, “but if you’re striving for it and can’t achieve it, you suffer. Control is a double-edged sword: it can work as a tactic when you have a stable, predictable environment, but not when you don’t.
“It’s easy to get swept up in a long battle against the uncontrollable. But so often, it’s a fight you cannot win: you will not be able to achieve the control you seek; meanwhile, your own health will suffer.”
Understand that pursuing control is a natural response to the uneasy unpredictability of the world, and it’s a way we try to cope – but it simply doesn’t work. One study on baboons found that when they try to control things they can’t, they experience higher stress hormones and more illness. It’s likely the same story for humans.
Next, it can help to use a mantra, or stick up a note somewhere reminding you not to waste energy fussing about things you can’t change. Anything that will pull you out of the loop of worry will work, whether that’s a simple “not my circus, not my monkeys”, a quote from the Dalai Lama (“if a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying”), or a post-it with “it is what it is” written in capital letters.
Then it’s about changing the issues in life that actually are within your control. If ‘I’m not getting outside enough’ is on your stressor list, change your routine so you can sit in the park for a bit. If your working day is a constant stress, suss out which parts of it you can tweak, or if it might be time to move on from this particular job. Reminding yourself of the areas that are within your control can make you feel more empowered and like the other stuff isn’t such of a big deal.
For the things outside of her control, Dr Epel uses a powerful visualisation. She pictures herself pulling on a rope that’s tied to a massive boulder that just won’t ever budge. “I’m using up all my energy trying to solve something that cannot be solved,” she writes. “I gently ask myself: Can I just drop the rope and let it be? Or sometimes it takes an emphatic Drop the rope!” You might find something similar helpful.
The final step is radical acceptance: accepting that few things are within your control, but one thing that is, is how you respond. You don’t have the power to dictate exactly what happens in your life or your day. But what you do have power over is whether you let each thing spin you out or knock you off-course. You decide if you spend time stressing and ruminating, or if you pull yourself out of the cycle and keep going forward.
The Seven-Day Stress Prescription by Dr Elissa Epel is available now (£9.99, Penguin Life)
Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.
Main image: Getty, Stylist
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