There is a Buddhist proverb that says “In each loss, there is a gain. As in every gain, there is a loss. And in each ending, there is a new beginning”. The pandemic is teaching us many things about loss, from the loss of life and livelihoods to the loss of freedoms we previously took for granted; to the loss of choice; and finally, the loss of control.
We used to be able to choose when, where and how we could: travel and holiday; gather in public spaces; attend private and public events; plan family gatherings and celebrations; plan romantic liaisons; plan and schedule work, study and personal commitments; and so on. We knew what to expect when visiting relatives in hospitals for worrying situations such as illness, and joyous occasions such as the birth of baby, and so on. We knew the social rules and expectations, and it gave us a sense of control in our lives, a sense of predictability, a sense of “I’ve totally got this!”.
As the pandemic drags on, however, it is dawning on us that we no longer have the freedoms we used to have; we no longer have the control we used to have; we have no idea if and when life will return to normal. This unpredictability and uncertainty is making us extremely jittery and affecting our wellbeing.
For the most part, humans prefer predictably over unpredictability. We like to know what’s going on, and we don’t like being bewildered and confused. We make plans for those things we can predict and control (like an outdoor birthday party event on a certain date); while we take into account unpredictable factors (such as weather), with a contingency plan to include marquee hire or an indoor venue. Plans and predictability offer some semblance of control, but why is this important to our sense of wellbeing?
Recent neuroscientific research undertaken by de Berker and colleagues concluded that uncertainty and unpredictability is even more stress inducing than predictable events with known negative consequences. For example, it is more stressful not knowing whether you are going to keep or lose your job or not, than knowing that you are definitely going to lose your job.
Our brain is constantly assessing and perceiving real and imagined levels of risk in our immediate environment – recognizes when we are not in control, and responds by recruiting every available neuron to regain control of situations. As our natural instinct is survival, it is exactly when things are the least predictable, that a release of chemical hormones in the brain spurs us into action in order to ‘do something’ about the threat. Taking action when negative consequences are least predictable (like job seeking for another position if our current situation is uncertain) is the most beneficial thing to do under the circumstances, because our sympathetic nervous system has been conveniently activated to ‘do something’, ‘do anything’, ‘just do’; in a concerted effort to regain a degree of predictability and control over what happens next.
Conversely, an inability to take the necessary action required means that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, pumping us up for action, preparing us for the flight-fight ahead – only to find that our shoelaces are tied due to factors (such as pandemic restrictions for example) and we fall flat on our faces. Our tanks are flooded with ‘action chemicals’ so we are rearing to go, but every time we try to accelerate, we stall in the starting blocks, thwarting our efforts to move forward.
In this state of limbo, it is easy to see why we feel as though we have lost our freedoms, lost our ability to choose, lost our locus of control, lost our mojo. We are languishing in a state of stagnation and lethargy, instead of flowing towards a state of thriving or flourishing.
So, how do we turn this around? How do we try and regain control? How do we reduce our stress levels? How do we move from languishing to thriving and flourishing? Consider the following 3 mental ‘tools’ to help you shift the energy.
Mental Tool #1 : Maximise Energy
When we focus our attention on areas that we can control, we Maximise Energy (ME).
Make a list of your worries and concerns. This ‘brain dump’ helps alleviate the overwhelm.
Now that you have cleared your head, think again about what problem you are trying to solve or what goal you are trying to achieve. Write this down.
Use the model below to visualize & consider which concerns are in your control and which are outside of your control:
- Identify the areas of concern in your life.
- Example: I am concerned that my job is coming to an end.
- Identify the areas outside of your control.
- Examples: My company is closing down. My boss is selling the business. My section/division/branch of the organisation is becoming obsolete.
- Identify the areas within your control.
- Examples: I can arrange a meeting with my manager to discuss my concerns. I can start job seeking and applying for jobs. I can ask my boss for time off for interviews. I can find out if the new owners will consider keeping me employed here. I can apply for a transfer to another section/branch/division of the organisation. I can explore contract work or self-employment opportunities…
Use this diagram to explore: How you use your emotional energy; How you might be more proactive; How you might let go of worries; What power for action you do have; How to grow your area of control.
Mental Tool #2 : The Cognitive Triangle
On average, humans have around 60,000+ thoughts a day, mostly unconscious and mostly on repeat play. Our thoughts form a feedback loop, impacting our emotions and behaviour, so it is helpful to become aware of our thought and word patterns.
Thoughts and words about the pandemic are difficult to escape as the topic is all-pervasive, and this is taking a huge toll on our wellbeing. We are processing a wide range of emotions such as grief, anger, disappointment, disillusionment, sorrow, bewilderment, confusion, distrust with the system, distrust of our leaders and politicians and so on. As an individual, we may feel we can do very little to change the status quo, and we may well be right. We are like spokes in a wheel. We are like waves in an ocean. We are only a part of the whole. You might be asking yourself “How can I, as one little person, make a difference?” The answer lies in the wisdom of this Native American legend:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The truth is, our power and strength does not lie outside of us. It lies within each of us; in our thoughts, in our words, in our actions, in our deeds. It is here where each and every one of us can make a difference to the collective whole. We need to realize and harness the power of our thoughts, our words, and where we choose to focus our attention. This is where we have control, and where we can maximize our energy.
We choose what we think. For example:
- I can choose to think that our politicians are corrupt and/or incompetent. That thought affects my emotions and I feel angry and frustrated about something that is outside of my control. Those emotions affect my behaviour and I lash out at people around me or engage in negative conversation that continuously feeds me negative thoughts in a feedback loop.
- I can choose to think that politicians are essentially good, and that they are trying their best under extremely difficult circumstances that may be outside of their control, and definitely outside of my control. The emotion that arises because of this thought is kindness and compassion, and so my behaviour is gentler, calmer and I am more pleasant and considerate to those around me.
Byron Katie once said: “When we question our thoughts, we see that the craziness was never in the world, but in us”; while Sam Harris, in his book Free Will stated that: “Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”
- Ask yourself often: “Who is in control? The thinker or the thoughts?”.
- Remind yourself often: “I am not my thoughts”.
Mental Tool #3 : Acceptance
The unpredictability of the pandemic, the uncertainty, the unfamiliar social rules and expectations, is causing us mental confusion, it is debilitating, it is making us feel ‘stuck’ and powerless. Many of us feel we have reached the outer limits of our coping ability and I saw a connection to our current situation in this great meme on social media. Whether it rains or not, is outside of our control. What matters are the thoughts and emotions that we attach to the fact that it is raining. Similarly, whether this is a global pandemic or not, is outside of our control. The thoughts, words, emotions and behaviours we attach to this reality is a personal choice and within our control. The challenge in uncertain times is twofold: how do we learn to accept the status quo, and why should we? In pondering this, I was reminded of the Serenity Prayer.
May I be granted serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Throughout each and every loss experienced during the pandemic, may it be wisdom that we ultimately gain.
© Gaynor Clarke, January 2022
Gaynor is a teacher educator and mentor facilitating personal & professional leadership wellbeing outcomes for teachers.
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