Latest posts by Georgina Dent (see all)
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Feelings of anxiety often stem from a lack of control over uncontrollable aspects of situations. Thinking I need to be able to control everything to ensure that I don’t feel anxious is often what fuels the anxious feelings. Having grown up referring to this as the ‘vicious circle’, I have realised that whilst I recognise its existence, I never really thought about it in much more detail than that, nor what I could do to dial down the fear factor that the circle exudes- perhaps making it more of a ‘bearable circle’, or maybe not even a circle anymore at all.
For me, there are three categories that contribute to the anxious feelings that a lack of control creates, and they are:
- Uncontrollable variables
- Wandering imagination
So how do they add up to create the fear and anxiety that they do for me?
These are things that are thoroughly out of anyone’s control, yet the prospect of them fills us with fear. For example, trains being delayed (something that I dread every time I take a train, as I already feel quite anxious on public transport ), other people (the most uncontrollable variable of them all). Basically, everything that we don’t have the power to preplan with surety is something that can be considered an uncontrollable variable. It is impossible to control everything at all times, and I am learning to focus my energy instead on the things that I can control. Working out ways to reduce the anxiety about the things I cannot control, therefore giving myself back some of the control: making sure I take a bottle of water with me on train rides or to the cinema; focusing on breathing techniques to try to remain calm; making sure I have something to try to distract myself with, whether that be music, books, or even simply playing Tetris on my phone. It may seem like small things, but even the littlest of things can help to reduce anxious feelings, and whilst it doesn’t get rid of the lack of control over some aspects of situations, it does help to feel in control of other aspects.
This is the prospect of not knowing how things are going to pan out. Whilst we do often try to predict outcomes, we won’t know for sure whether we are correct until the situation takes place. I find that unpredictability bears the most weight when interacting with other people, for example talking on the phone, especially with people I don’t know, as it eliminates the benefits of visual social cues. A lot of people experience this when making appointments and attending job interviews, as you don’t know the person that you are conversing with, and you don’t know what they’re going to ask you. I find that if I know loosely what is going to be asked or discussed beforehand, I can go into it feeling slightly less anxious than I do when I have no idea what is to come. While scoping things out beforehand can be extremely helpful, it’s not always possible, and in those instances, I try to use the same focus on control as I do to uncontrollable variables. I try to keep my focus on small things that are in my control in order to think less about the things I cannot predict, for example, when on the phone I try to look at something in particular, maybe watch something out of the window, or doodle- something that can take the pressure of reacting to unknown things off of myself and making it feel less formal, something that can take the importance of the situation out of my mind and replace it with something to distract the anxious feelings.
This is our ability to come up with scenarios beforehand to worry about. This is what keeps us imagining copious outcomes to situations that fill us with even more anxiety and worrying than we previously had. It’s how I already have an answer when people ask ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ about something I’m worried about. It is also silly. Whilst the knowledge of it being irrational doesn’t do much to help it, it does sometimes help for me to be able to look at my extreme worst thing that can happen as fiction. I can look back at past experiences and say, with some confidence, that my pre-imagined ‘worst thing that can happen’ probably won’t happen, as it never has before, giving me at least a small amount of comfort. Something that I have found that does actually help this factor, however, is to challenge my imagination. Once my worries have created a ‘worst case scenario’, I try to find the solution to that scenario. For example, I think about what it would mean and what I would do if it did come true. Often, this helps to put it into perspective, as, as much fear as the situation may bring me, I know that it wouldn’t be the end of my life or the end of the world if the scenario did end up happening, as unlikely as it may be. This doesn’t work every time, however what it does do is distract my mind. Sometimes the ‘worst case scenario’ is more anxiety inducing than the problem solving is calming, but at least I have spent that time coming up with positive responses to the worries instead of coming up with even more scenarios that could take place.
I am still very much working on tackling my need for control within situations, however my exploration of why these three categories have the power they do over me, and what I can do to regain some of that power, is helping immensely. I have found that it is often little things that can make great changes when I feel anxious, and that I don’t necessarily need to be in control of every variable in order to prevent feeling anxious. Finding control over little things doesn’t stop me from feeling anxious entirely, but I know that it is a start: it is helping me to grow my comfort zone and become more hopeful of what my comfort zone could one day be.