On the Internet, the setting of our new coronavirus life, every news site has some graph predicting the future. Every influencer has advice for how to live, and every business has a COVID-19 FAQ section.
However, no amount of expertise seems to quiet the questions in our heads: Will my parents be okay? Is my job going to last? Was I six feet away from that person in the vegetable aisle?
This desperate search for facts and answers, for expert opinions and statistical predictions, is our brain’s way of seeking out stability and control. We want a roadmap and a manual, a guarantee that if I just do this, my people will be safe.
But in the face of a global pandemic caused by a new virus that we don’t fully understand, there is so much out of our control, from the actions of our neighbors to the timing of a vaccine. And so, alongside the grief and anxiety we’re feeling—the loss of what we had in the past and the fear for the future—there is another big emotion that’s spreading around: helplessness.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” says Patricia Frazier, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “And then there are the losses that we also really can’t do much about, like students who don’t get to have a graduation. There’s so much about this that we can’t control.”
Feeling helpless can have a very negative effect on our mental health, as a great deal of research shows. So, how can we let go of what we can’t control, without just giving up? Research by Frazier and others can help us all to find that balance. The secret is to focus on what’s happening right now, right in front of you. If you can do that, studies suggest, you’ll be better equipped to solve the problems you face—and to accept situations you can’t change.
The wisdom to know the difference
In early April, as cities around the world were going into lockdown, Frazier and her team signed up 400 students to take part in a three-week experiment. In surveys, the students told her that COVID-19 was affecting their daily lives significantly, leaving them struggling to transition to online classes, missing their friends, and worried about how long this all would last.
Frazier split the students into two groups. One group is being asked to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for reducing coronavirus-related stress, including exercising, getting enough sleep, connecting with other people, and doing activities they enjoy. The other group is learning how to feel more in control of their stress. When they get upset, they’re reminded to stop, take a few breaths, and be mindful of what’s stressing them out. Then, they reflect on what they have control over, what they don’t have control over, and what they can do about the things within their control.
“You’re not just spinning your wheels dwelling,” says Frazier. “When you focus on what you can control, it’s more energizing, it promotes that sense of agency.”
For example, one student was feeling bogged down by loneliness, but realized the solution was as simple as reaching out to friends. Another student recognized that they could address their stress around classes and exams by taking advantage of some of the university’s online resources.
It might seem counterproductive to also reflect on what you can’t control, but making that distinction is important. Without it, we might end up in a state of “anxiety and hypervigilance” as we try to tame reality into submission, refusing to accept our areas of powerlessness. Today, that might look like obsessing over sanitizing every surface in your house, second-guessing your grocery lists, or burning yourself out to prove you’re a model employee.
All that frenzied action can give us the illusion that we’re the ultimate masters of our fate—and if something goes wrong, it’s only because we didn’t do enough, and we just need to tighten our grip in the future.
Research backs up the notion that trying to exercise control in some areas can be unhelpful. When we mistakenly think we can control the future, we can actually feel more distressed, research suggests. It’s not fully up to us whether we experience a loss or a viral infection; unfortunately, even if we do everything right, things don’t always turn out okay.
Nor does it help to focus on the control we had (and, perhaps, misused) in the past. Whether you took that ill-advised spring break trip right before lockdown, or didn’t stock up on enough canned goods when you had the chance, there is nothing you can do about it now.
There’s something to be said for releasing our mania for control. In fact, research suggests that not all cultures have such a strong need to be in charge all the time. One study, for example, found that British people were more stressed and distressed when they felt out of control in life—but Japanese were not. How comfortable you are with uncertainty, and how desperately you need to carve out a sphere of influence in your coronavirus life, may depend on the culture you grew up in. It can help to ask yourself if what you were taught growing up is a help or a liability in a pandemic.
Then, spend some time thinking about where you have control and what actions you can take in those areas. If you start to worry about things you do have control over, you can remind yourself of your plans to address them: I’ll be sure to sanitize my keys and my phone every time I come home. In a study where participants tried this technique for non-coronavirus-related stresses, they were able to reduce their stress, depression, and anxiety compared to people who simply got a lesson on stress.
One study of cancer patients offers a peek into the many small ways people find a sense of control in adversity. For example, the patients talked about staying active and making changes to their diet, reading and relaxing, asking their doctor questions, and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy—nearly all of which are applicable to us today.
Another way is to be deliberate about how we respond to our fear, grief, and anger during this time. According to one study in the Netherlands, people who tended to face their difficulties directly—for example, recognizing their feelings but also putting things in perspective—felt more in control of their lives. In contrast, people who passively wallowed in their feelings or avoided them altogether felt less in control. (In fact, trying to suppress a pesky, nagging thought could just make it more persistent.)
When we feel helpless, we may tamp down our innate instinct to care for others, particularly at a time like now when the scale of need and suffering is so great. As Greater Good Science Center science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas points out, for non-essential workers, our normal ways of volunteering or helping our neighbors might not be possible in an era of physical distancing. But creative forms of communal generosity are still alive and well during COVID-19. Following inspiring news stories can give us ideas for ways to contribute—from making masks to writing letters to elderly neighbors.
In the face of everything we’re powerless to change, it’s easy to feel weak and helpless and resign ourselves to a fate dictated by reckless neighbors and foolhardy leaders. And we probably will sometimes. But it’s the little things we do—the daily routines, the way we deal with our emotions, and our care for others—that will remind us our actions make a difference.
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