By Steph Tranter
When your the world you’ve become accustomed to, suddenly becomes all weird, uncomfortable and uncertain, it can feel like there is nothing you can do about it, that you’re helpless, alone, stuck, or worse, that you’re spinning out of control and close to breaking.
But there are some things you can do. You may not be able to change the situation, but you can take some actions to help you navigate through it, and not make it worse.
It is often not the situation itself that causes a lot of our emotional suffering, but moreover it is our reaction to it that causes us the most pain.
Here’s 10 things you can do in uncertain and weird times to regulate your reaction, reduce your emotional suffering and feel calmer and more in control.
1.Take it day by day (even hour by hour)
When almost every aspect of your life is constantly being re-written, it can be energy sapping to keep adjusting to the constant changes in how you need to live and work. Uncertainty means you aren’t able to predict tomorrow’s problems, which means it’s hard to plan for. And so even beginning to contemplate what will be happening in 6 months’s time is fruitless, because so much could change again by then.
There are some things you can plan for, so do what you can with those, but the best thing you can do is make sure you are emotionally ready for tomorrow. Which means creating a balance between fixing today’s problems with managing your emotional energy to deal with tomorrow’s. Focusing on short term outcomes in this time and what you can control right now will help you to navigate through.
Also, take comfort in the science that shows we are not good at predicting how we will feel in the future. Research shows that we over estimate both how bad and how good we will feel in the future. Which suggests that the future may not be as bad as we are imagining.
Mantra: I won’t feel like this forever
Question to help: What’s in my control right now?
2. Accept what is not in your control and focus on what is
Government decisions and other people’s behaviour are not in your control. The main thing in our control is our emotional state and how we frame things. Great examples of this are all around at the moment. I’ve seen lots of posts reframing things like ‘I’m stuck at home’ to be ‘I’m safe at home’. So, acceptance is an important state to get to in order to help you re-focus your attention.
Mantra: I may not like this, I may not want it, but it is here.
Question to help: What’s good about this?
3. Notice when you’re not ok
Get good at spotting the physical signs that you’re not ok. These often show up in our stomachs, shoulders, headaches, sleeping patterns, or even just staring out the window unable to focus.
It’s important to do this so that you can start to manage the plethora of emotions that will be racing through you at a rate of knots right now, rather than brush them aside or push on through them. Being overwhelmed with emotions physically stops your brain from thinking rationally. This is because the part in the brain – the Limbic system – that deals with emotions, will over power the Pre-frontal cortex which is the rational part of the brain. So, you need to spot and manage your emotions to help your brain function better and help you to solve all these new problems that you face.
Mantra: Diffuse don’t deny my emotions.
Question to help: How do I feel right now? What emotion is this?
4. Know what you need to keep calm and positive
There will be activities or people that help you feel calm or boost your mood. These may be very different to someone else, and that’s ok. It’s about knowing what they are and what works for you, and then actively doing them. So this could be reading, or chatting to a smiley person, or having a bath, being silly, watching a comedy, meditating. It might be a phrase or mantra you say to yourself.
Mantra: Whatever happens I’ll handle it.
Question: What activities or people make me feel calm and positive?
5. Prioritise managing your energy and emotions
This is all about making sure that managing your energy and emotions are top of your list. Everything is constantly changing and therefore takes more energy, so you will need more energy than normal to deal with the changes. Each new way of doing or being at home and work will zap energy. We fall into habits in our normal day to day lives and that helps conserve energy as they don’t take much to think about. But when everything gets thrown up in the air and old habits can no longer happen, it is draining to do new things all the time.
Mantra: Manage my energy as well as my time
Question: What can I do to boost my energy right now?
6. Be less quick to judge what things mean or how others behave
Judgement brings about emotions like anger and shame. And these can then impact how you behave (e.g. not smiling at people, criticising how they behave, criticising how you behave). So when you are about to throw out a judgement on someone’s behaviour, it’s important to ask – do I have enough information about that person to make that judgement? For example have you seen someone putting 5 packs of toilet roll in their trolley? Perhaps you’ve got angry at that person for being so selfish. But were you aware that they were shopping for 5 elderly people who are self-isolating?
Mantra: Be curious rather than judgmental
Question to help: Do I have enough information about that person to make that judgement?
7. Be led by your values
In uncertain times, with lots of of things out of your control, the only thing often in your control is how you behave. We can feel better about ourselves when our behaviour is congruent with our values, and when we have chosen to live according to our values. Choosing helps you feel like you are in control. And feeling in control can help you remain calm. Your values might be collaboration, or being kind, or being honest, or genuine, or showing empathy, being creative. Look for ways to be led by those values.
Difficult times bring out the best and the worst in people. Why not make a conscious choice to be a person who this time brings the best out in.
Mantra: How I behave is in my control!
Question to help: What values would I be proud to live by during this time?
8. Stay connected and ask for help
Lots of people are struggling to talk to each other about their problems at the moment, because they know everyone is suffering and don’t want to burden them. So, I’ve been trying to help people just embrace the messiness and know that it’s ok for you and your friends to be on the same call and both share your problems without judging who’s got it worse or better. People like to help, so it’s quite nice to have a balance of sharing and helping each other with your different problems.
Also, when we feel sad or worried our instinct is to withdraw. We are all suffering losses of different kinds – some big, some small. But losses in freedom to do things the way we used to will cause grief just like losing someone who dies. So, it’s important to be mindful of the instinct to withdraw and to not let that go on for too long, but to balance it out by making a conscious effort to connect with others.
Mantra: Embrace the messiness
Question to help: Who haven’t I checked in on in a while?
9. Balance protecting yourself with helping others
It’s a tough balance to make sure you do things that look after you so you can deal with all the changes that are happening, and at the same time to do things that help to look after others and the wider aims of our society. If you go to the extreme end of either side it can have a potentially negative impact. Too much on the ‘look after yourself’ only side can seem selfish and might also not feel that fulfilling. But too much on the looking after others side, might mean that you are probably doing it at a cost to yourself and therefore on the way to burn out and breakdown.
Mantra: Balance looking after me and others
Question to help: Have I got a good balance between looking after me and others right now?
10. Focus on what you’ve got and look for the positive
It is human nature to focus on the negative, this is a survival instinct that we’ve had since our cavemen and women days. Back then it was more important to remember the one path with the poisonous snake on, than the 9 others without it.
So this helps our survival but also makes it difficult to see the good in situations especially when things are constantly changing. But ‘uncertain’ means just that, uncertain. It’s got just as much chance of bringing positive things as well as negative things. The good, the positive, the beautiful are all there, we just need to turn our attention towards them.
We are all experiencing a sense of loss at the moment, and so our attention is likely to be focused a lot on what’s missing. Again it is a natural human reaction which helps drive us towards seeking out the things that help our survival.
However, remembering what you’ve already got can help balance out the sadness you feel for the loss, with gratitude for what you have that perhaps you had been taking for granted. Making a list of all the things you value that you have still got, is a good way to remind yourself of all you have to be grateful for.
Mantra: Look for the positive
Questions to help: What’s good about this? How can I use this? What can I learn from this to help me in the future?
I hope these ideas, mantras and questions help.
Steph is a psychologist and executive coach, www.stephtranter.com