There are many things in life we can’t control—everything from tiny annoyances to tragedies. We can’t control if our grandmother gets cancer and passes away. We can’t control if we get cancer.
We can’t control what others think, say or do. We can’t control what others think of us. We can’t control who our loved ones hang out with. We can’t control who we work with or who’s in charge. We can’t control Mother Nature, or today’s traffic.
But, of course, we can control our reactions to all the things we can’t control.
I’m sure you’ve heard that statement many, many times. And it’s true, of course. But, in the moment, we’re often left wondering, how do we react when we’re really upset? How do we react when it feels like our world has stopped—or exploded?
Below two therapists share their suggestions.
Feel what you’re feeling. Give yourself the space and permission to feel whatever emotions arise. Name your feelings. Acknowledge them, without judging yourself, without beating yourself up, without saying, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
“Being honest with what is happening for you will give you the opportunity to heal from it,” said Stacey Ojeda, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with clients on healing and adjusting to sudden and traumatic loss, such as suicide, homicide, medical traumas and accidents, as well working with those who’ve survived sexual assault and abuse. “Avoiding what feelings come up doesn’t make them go away, it just prolongs the healing process.”
So tell yourself the truth. Honor your feelings. Accept them. Ojeda shared these examples: “I’m just really hurt that [he] called me ugly. It really hurt my feelings and I feel sad and embarrassed about it;” “I am so angry that I have cancer. It feels really unfair and I am really scared.”
Take deep breaths. When we get overwhelmed, our breathing becomes shallow, which spikes our stress. Practicing deep breathing helps to calm us. It’s also a reminder that you can control your breath—even when there’s little else you can control, said Daniela Paolone, LMFT, a holistic psychotherapist who utilizes mind-body techniques, education, pain management approaches and more, to help those with chronic illness, pain and anxiety get back to living life with greater ease and comfort.
To begin, place one hand on your belly button. Inhale through your nose, so your belly expands out and fills with air, like a balloon, she said. Exhale, so your belly moves inward. “As you inhale you can say to yourself that you are breathing in health and healing and on the exhale, you are breathing out any worries and concerns.”
Don’t fixate on reasons. If I lost 10 pounds, he wouldn’t have left me. If I didn’t eat so much sugar, I wouldn’t have cancer. If I reminded him to wear his seatbelt, he wouldn’t have broken bones.
“When you get caught up on the ‘why’ and trying to find the perfect answer for why the event took place, it stops you from moving forward and finding what you can control in that moment,” Ojeda said. Relinquish your search for reasons, and what-ifs.
Create a jar of gratitude. “When events or situations in life go wrong, it is really easy for us to only bring our energy and attention to those problems,” Paolone said. And then we get stuck. And then we dwell (and drown) in this dark place.
Paolone understands what it’s like to have darker moments. She lives with various health issues and chronic pain. She finds having a jar of “good moments” to be particularly helpful. This is where she includes events and experiences that she’s appreciative of, such as: feeling healthy enough to get a haircut; meeting a good friend for lunch; sipping a favorite tea and reading the paper; having a supportive family, seeing a caring doctor who sits and listens to her concerns.
What are you appreciative of, even in the midst of frustration or pain?
Move your body. Some research has found that individuals who participate in a regular yoga practice are better able to manage strong emotions, Paolone said. Also, moving our bodies promotes blood circulation and releases tension, “which is exactly what you need to do when overwhelmed by life circumstances.”
If yoga isn’t your thing, what movement do you enjoy? What rejuvenates you? What calms you?
Turn to trustworthy people. Sometimes, when we’re feeling out of control, we disconnect from loved ones. We isolate. We withdraw. However, this is precisely when we “need someone who can be stable to help ground us back down,” Ojeda said.
Another reason people don’t reach out for support is because they don’t want to burden someone else with their problems. “I always challenge my clients to ask themselves if their friend or family member was experiencing a similar ‘out of control’ experience, would you want them to come to you or keep it to themselves?”
You also can combine connection with movement by taking a walk with a loved one, Paolone said.
Remind yourself it’s not permanent. No matter how horrible you feel, remind yourself that it won’t last forever. As Ojeda said, “feelings are constantly changing.” They invariably ebb and flow. “Can you think back to another time you felt really awful and stuck, but then it passed?”
When you can’t control a situation, you feel overwhelmed, powerless, helpless and hopeless. It’s demoralizing to think there’s nothing you can do. Or maybe we know there are many things we can do, but we don’t have the energy. When this happens, when you feel this way, move slowly. Honor yourself. Take one small, tiny step. Take a breath. Text a loved one. Write a few words about what you need. Take your time. In other words, be kind and gentle with yourself.