Remember how great it was to put 2020 to bed? With vaccines rolling out and change rolling in, many of us felt a sense of renewed calm and control.
Too bad there’s no 7-day satisfaction guarantee on modern times. A deadly incited insurrection at the US Capitol, the crushing crest of another COVID wave, and massive uncertainty in general has reverted us to a state where brain fog, anxiety, and overwhelm abound.
Feeling powerless can be paralyzing. Control is essential to well-being, with studies revealing it helps unlock happiness, creativity, and resilience.
The good news (there is some!) is that new pandemic-related research shows that our coping mechanisms may work better than you think. Getting a grip is in your hands.
A sense of control and, relatedly, powerlessness is as much a function of your brain as it is reality.
Importantly, our perception of control is relatively subjective, and scientists have found that this can influence our well-being independently of the many other factors that determine the actual amount of control we have over our lives.
For example, restricted movement — say, if you’re a caged animal or an LA resident (like me) in lockdown because one in every five COVID tests is positive — chips away at autonomy. When uncertainty replaces a once-solid sense of agency, extended feelings of helplessness can make illness and even death a self-fulfilling outcome.
All of this can be avoided by not buying into the perception that everything is beyond your power. And the best way to regain control is to decide what’s yours to control — and what’s not.
Stay in Control
A research team headed by Eric Anicich from the USC Marshall School of Business coincidentally was studying people’s work experiences when the pandemic hit. They captured the early days of societal upheaval, and along with it, the initial nosedive of their subjects’ sense of autonomy.
But then, something interesting happened. Anicich found that most bounced back quickly, pointing to a built-in propensity to seek ways to ease the situation. And while some see paranoia as the destroyer, the most neurotic rebounded quickest, as they have a highly vigilant mindset ready to respond to threats.
The key is to keep your cognition in check. We’re bad at predicting the future, thanks to the hedonic forecasting mechanism, which biases you towards seeing today’s news (bad and good) as permanent.
Negative comparisons and avoidance can further color coping, so the trick is to reframe your thoughts intentionally. Once your worries are in perspective, your sense of personal autonomy is regained — even in the face of persistent stress.
While you can’t always choose your circumstances, you can choose your response. With consciousness and practice, that’s how you gain control.