It’s natural to feel the need to control something when everything around you feels out of control, and you feel helpless.

When a friend of mine first heard about the coronavirus outbreak, she got down on her hands and knees and cleaned her kitchen floor. She told me, “My floor wasn’t even dirty, but doing something constructive made me feel in control and that I was holding on to my power, despite the dire circumstances.”

When things are out of control, one of the best measures we can take is to focus on what we can control in our own little corner of the world. And that can go a long way when we break big problems into small, actionable steps.

Helping and small gestures of creativity provide a sense of control when things are beyond our control.
Source: Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Thrive Global surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 American adults. One of the most striking findings was that 80 percent of respondents feel helpless when things are out of their control — underscoring the need for tools that empower people to take action. Founder and CEO of Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington, writes, “As so much recent science has confirmed, we have more control than we realize when it comes to building healthy habits and resilience. When so much of the coronavirus crisis is outside our control, it’s not only essential but empowering, to focus on what we can control.”

Your Perspective Is Key

Your most powerful weapon against uncertainty is your perspective because nobody and no situation can take that from you unless you give it away. Your perspective can victimize or empower you. When you look for the upside in a downside situation and figure out what you can control and what you can't, it’s easier to accept whatever is beyond your control. Your best ally is to find the opportunity in the difficulty during an uncontrollable situation instead of the difficulty in the opportunity.

I asked singer/songwriter Rhonda Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, her how she’s coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said choosing her perspective is what gives her a sense of control during these uncertain times:

“It’s all about my perspective. What is it about my perspective that I have control over? I have control of how I see it, how much I focus on it, how much energy and time I give to it, how much mental space I give to it. I can’t stop a global virus. I can be stressed or scared or tense about it, which will only hurt me in terms of high blood pressure or depression and other mental and physical problems. Or I can look at the parts of it that are not as scary, like how many people have recovered from it. And I can do the things in my life that help me feel in control or give me back my power. I can wipe down the phone, keep my hands clean, I can keep my immunity up. I can get sleep and drink water and make sure I’m not running myself ragged. One of the things that gives me power and control is to not think about what’s going to happen two weeks or six months from now because no one knows. I can focus in the now, be present and know that for right now I’m healthy and safe.”

Practice Doing Small Gestures for Others and Yourself

Small gestures during hard times assuage worry and concern. Often during emergencies and crises, people start performing acts of kindness at random. Helping others through a crisis by performing good deeds can make you feel in control—even give you a sense of euphoria. The obvious benefit when you reach out to help someone else is that you get a break from your own worries for a while. Contributing, giving, volunteering, donating and performing kind acts, no matter how small or brief, connect you to other people (and animals) in a deeply meaningful, humane way. But that’s just for starters.

Recently, I went through a Starbucks drive-thru and ordered my typical double shot latte. At the pick-up window when I tried to pay the cashier, she waved me away, saying the customer in the car in front of me had already paid for my order. I had a burst of good feelings that created a domino effect. I told her I wanted to pay for the customer’s order behind me. Another burst of good feelings, known as “paying it forward.” I suspect the persons in front and behind me had similar natural highs.

The bursts of euphoria—known as “the helper’s high”—come from dopamine and endorphin released in the brain. Medical studies show that the saliva of compassionate people contains more immunoglobulin A, an antibody that fights off infection. In addition to boosting the immune system, brain scans of benevolent people show that generosity gave them a calmer disposition, less stress, better emotional health, and higher self-worth.

Create Something to Offset the Devastation

As part of the life cycle, creation is the antidote to destruction. Creating something in the wake of mass destruction or deadly threats can give you a sense of control and reminds you of your resilience. You don’t have to be an artist to do this. The key is to be creative and not let your confined circumstances dwarf your tranquility, happiness, or productivity. Painting, writing, or making something with your hands that symbolizes how you feel about the restrictions you’re under can give you an outlet to release emotional burdens and give you a sense of power. Simply writing your emotions down gets them out on paper and can feel cathartic.

Take Positive Action

Make “cans” out of “cannots” and focus on what you can control. Take advantage of this restrictive time to clear the clutter out of your basement, pull weeds in the garden, organize drawers, closets, and bookshelves, or get caught up on fun hobbies you've neglected for a while. Focus on a thought, person, pet, or object that stir hope and positivity within you. Hope always exists alongside despair. Last fall, we transplanted a huge Maple in the middle of our deck. During the winter all the leaves fell, and we feared it had died. Now with the onslaught of spring, the tree is full of new leaves. When I look at it I am overjoyed and filled with hope about the life cycle—and that in the end, everything is going to work out. We’re just not there yet.

Meanwhile, taking everything as it comes one day at a time and whispering the serenity prayer can carry us far in our hope and peace of mind until we get there: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

References

Bellosta-Batalla, M, et al. (2017). Increased salivary IgA response as an indicator of immunocompetence after a mindfulness and self-compassion-based intervention. Mindfulness, 9 (3): 1-9.

Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65:564–570.