Coping When Things Are Out of Our Control

by Rebecca S. Blakeman, PhD

The COVID-19 crisis and life lessons go hand-in-hand. This crisis has given us the opportunity to not only learn new life lessons for the first time, it has also given us the opportunity to put into practice life lessons we have learned along the way, even if we haven’t realized it. One of the most valuable life lessons we can learn, that certainly applies to the COVID-19 crisis but also to many everyday situations, is how to cope when events are out of our control.

Certainly COVID-19 presents us with many things that have been out of our control. We could not control it coming to our respective countries. We could not control the fact that it was a highly infectious and very dangerous virus. We could not control how government officials responded to the crisis. We could not control the fact that it was no longer safe to go to school or work, or even to socialize with friends. These were major life events that were completely out of our control. Thankfully, it’s not every day that we face such life-altering circumstances that are completely out of our control. But we do face, nearly every day, things that are out of control.

We cannot control daily stresses like whether there will be an accident and long traffic delay on the way to work, whether the store will have the supplies we need for the project we have planned, whether our flight will be delayed, whether it will rain on a day when we had planned outdoor activities, whether we will get sick the week that we have a large project due at work. Many of these stresses are short-term, but there are also more long-term things that are out of our control. We do not get to choose our family members, our neighbors, or even our co-workers. We cannot control what our elected officials do, or even what the majority of parents on the PTA board of the elementary school decide to do with funds raised to support the school. Nearly every day life brings us things we cannot control, so how we respond to things we cannot control can have a significant impact on our day to day life.

When faced with life stress, we must ask ourselves what part of it is under our control. Why does it matter if we can or cannot control a situation? Some might think that is a silly and obvious question, but it’s one we lose sight of when we are faced with significant obstacles. If something is truly out of our control, it offers little benefit to became angry or to spend hours ruminating and worrying about it…no amount of anger or worry is going to change or help the situation (e.g., worrying will not change the weather forecast on the day we planned our outdoor wedding). But at the same time, if a situation is under our control, we don’t want to face it passively and helplessly, because that offers no benefit either. So first and foremost decide if a situation is under your control; if any part of it is, acknowledge that it is frustrating and even maddening, but then go into problem solving mode, identifying a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C (because uncontrollable things could occur that prevent you from following your first plans).

But what if things are out of your control? If a situation is out of your control, be deliberate in how you choose to respond, as how we respond determines our success at healthy coping. Ideally, this needs to be a mindset that is pre-determined and well-practiced, though one can still learn along the way, after the crisis has begun. Set personal rules for how you will allow yourself to respond…will you scream in your car while stuck in traffic or will you play your favorite music or a good audiobook and enjoy the extra time to do so (not allowing your thoughts to focus on the problems the delay in traffic may cause you later). Neither approach will get you to your destination any faster, but your chosen response determines how miserable that time stuck in traffic will be for you.

Be aware of any expectations you may have that contribute to exaggerating the distress of the situation. I’ve written about this before…expectations are the root of disappointment. Are you expecting that life, the world, the people in the world will be fair? Are you expecting that life will go as planned all the time, without inconvenience or disruption? Sometimes we have periods in life when things do go amazingly smoothly, and we can begin to expect that it’s always going to be that way. Unfortunately, that sets us up for disappointment and even anger. When things are not going well, and are out of your control, check your expectations to see if they need to be adjusted.

Be aware of, and deliberate about, how you talk to yourself about situations that are out of your control. If you tell yourself, “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I’ll never get through this. Everything will be a disaster now,” you are not going to change anything about what cannot be controlled, but you are going to decimate your emotional well-being in that moment, which will hinder any efforts at effective coping. Many daily things that are out of our control are actual quite minor and nothing more than inconveniences, rather than true disasters (perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will help us to keep these things more in perspective in the future). Ask yourself if being late to work, because there was an accident (that thankfully you were not involved in) that shut down the interstate will actually cause you problems at work. Will your supervisor truly not understand how traffic works? Will your career end because the interstate was shut down for an hour? Likely not. Putting things in perspective and being honest about the fact that they are more inconvenient than disastrous can go a long way in protecting your emotional well-being.

But what if something truly big and disastrous happens? Sometimes we do truly suffer tragedies, and for many, COVID-19 has been one of those times. When we are faced with a painful or devastating loss, or a truly significant, life-changing crisis, we will have to work much harder to maintain our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Acknowledge both the seriousness and the pain brought on by the situation; denial will only temporarily avoid reality, and does nothing to protect your well-being. In tragedy, it is even more important to be deliberate in how we allow ourselves to think and talk about the situation. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” but it’s not ok to say, “I’ll never get through this.” The first is an honest, realistic appraisal of where you are and what you are experiencing, that gives no prediction of doom, but rather implies hope because it references “get through this.” The latter, in contrast, predicts failure and reinforces a sense of hopelessness; where there is no hope, we stop taking action…we stop moving forward. This one we can start practicing long before tragedy strikes. When we hear stories about people who have been through unimaginable trauma, heartache and devastation, we routinely say, “I could never get through that;” this simple, extremely common phrase sets us up for doubting our ability to cope and places us at risk for responding in helpless and hopeless ways. But what many who have survived the worst imaginable tragedies will tell you is that they got through it because they didn’t have a choice. They would never have chosen to experience the tragedy. They would never have wanted to experience the tragedy. They would never had known before the tragedy how they could possibly get through it. But once it happened, they recognized their only option was to keep moving forward.

While tragedies that are out of our control may come our way, there are still things we can control in those moments. The simple act of recognizing that there are things you can control, rather than falsely believing that ‘everything’ is out of your control, is an important first step to grounding yourself and creating some stability. Some things you can control will be large things, like what medical treatment to use, what burial arrangements to make, or what company to hire to repair your home after severe storm damage. But much of what we can control in life’s most difficult moments may be much smaller, such as choosing where we’re going to sleep (avoiding your bed after the loss of a spouse may be something you choose initially…but don’t choose the couch or a recliner as your alternative, as this will not lead to productive or restorative sleep, which we know is vital for emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being). We can choose what we eat, whether we shower, what friends and family we talk to, whether we go outside for fresh air, whether we open the window blinds, etc. While none of these ‘little’ decisions will solve our circumstances or make our pain go away, each one, in combination, will contribute to our well-being in the midst of the tragedy.

Finally, as with all things, whether a common frustration (e.g., traffic jam) or significant life tragedy, remember that your current circumstances are temporary. Certainly, traffic jams last for minutes to hours. A rainy wedding day lasts a day (yes, the memories last a lifetime, but they can still be wonderful even if things did not go exactly as planned). Some of life’s more serious setbacks, however, last much longer. Cancer treatments may keep you out of work, may interfere with your ability to participate in your favorite athletic activity, or may cause you to lose your hair…for months or even years. But most people will reach the end of their treatment and resume normal activities again; knowing it is temporary can be vital for coping with the lowest moments on that journey. Still, other life setbacks leave us with life-long losses. When this happens, it is important to remember that the sharpest and most unbearable pain comes in the beginning; it will not always be that intense, and there will even be moments when the pain slips away. Yes, when we experience significant loss we will have moments when the grief and pain seem to show up again out of nowhere; but they don’t tend to be as intense, or to last as long, as what we experience in the beginning. There is no correct time in which one should ‘finish’ grieving, and in reality grief doesn’t end, but simply changes. Thankfully, those changes mean the pain is not what it was in the early moments of the tragedy; remembering this can help us get through the darkest of times.

So as you continue to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, and life in general, be deliberate in how you respond to things that are out of your control, whether they are big or small. If this is difficult and you feel that you’re not able to get to a healthy place, reach out to a mental health professional for support and guidance. And as always, remember that this is temporary. We will get through it together, even if physically apart. And never, ever lose hope.