Whether it’s global unrest, the health of your parents or the chance your flight will get delayed or canceled, there are probably times when you spend your energy worrying about things you have little or no control over.
“There’s a harsh truth in life that is very difficult for many of us to accept—we cannot control everything that happens in our lives. And unfortunately, many of us tend to focus on what we can’t control,” said Denise Black, a social worker at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Arizona. “This leads to worry, which can turn into an overwhelming cycle—the more we worry, the more anxious we feel. Ultimately, resisting the fact that we cannot control certain things makes us worry about them even more.”
And this stress can take a toll on you. “Worrying can drain you of your mental strength and your energy. It can start to consume you,” Black said. You can develop anxiety, panic attacks and depression as well as physical symptoms such as headaches, high blood pressure, muscle tension and stomachaches. “Don’t ignore these symptoms—your body is communicating to you that something is not right,” she said.
Fortunately, there are ways you can break this cycle. “Your brain is like a muscle. You can train your brain just like you can train your body in the gym. You can build your mental muscle to think positively and focus on what you can control,” Black said. Here, she shares some strategies.
Evaluate how much control you have
When you’re stressed or worried about things, you’re probably not thinking about your level of control. But taking a step back can help. Black recommends writing down all the things you are worried about, then categorizing them into things you can control, things you can’t control and things that fall somewhere in the middle.
For those in the middle, where you may have some influence, rate your level of influence from one to 10. “For anything you rate less than a five, meaning you have little to no influence, focus on acceptance. For anything you rate five or higher, consider whether the situation is worth your time and energy,” Black said.
For instance, you may rate your level of control over your teenager’s grades a seven—your child is ultimately responsible for their grades. But your child’s academic success might be important to you, so you may choose to offer your help and support.
Take steps to reduce this type of stress
Of course, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re going to “let go” and stop caring about the things you can’t control. But that’s not always easy to put into action. Your list of the things you’re worried about is a good starting point—with it, you’re starting to develop an awareness of your level of control.
When you notice that you are worrying about something you can’t control, focus on what you can control. In many cases, the only thing you can control is your own reaction. “For example, you can’t control how somebody treats you, but you can control how you react to that person,” Black said.
You can also ask yourself what you are afraid will happen if you don’t have complete control over a situation. “Thinking of the worst-case scenario and coming up with a plan to deal with that will help ease the worry,” Black said. “Usually, it won’t be as bad as you perceive it, and chances are, you’re stronger than you think.”
For example, you might worry that your mother could need long-term care. You could talk to her about her finances and research the cost and availability of facilities. Knowing your options can ease your stress levels.
Try other stress-reducing strategies
You can also turn to some of the tried-and-true methods of reducing stress that comes from any cause, whether you can control it or not:
- Eat healthy foods that nourish your body
- Get plenty of sleep
- Meditate or practice yoga
- Focus on the present
- Take a few slow, deep breaths when you’re feeling stressed
- Tell yourself positive affirmations, which can combat self-doubt
The bottom line
The cycle of worrying about things you can’t control can be tough to break. But you can take steps to reduce this type of stress, and it’s worth making the effort. Black said, “When you stop worrying about things you can’t control, you’ll be surprised to find you will have more time and energy to devote to things you do have control over. This can be the key to living your best life!”
If you would like to talk to a mental health professional about stress-reducing strategies, reach out to Banner Health.