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Jan 30, 2023

Coping with Stress When You Can’t Change the Situation

Sheila Tucker

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“The more you try to control everything around you, the more anxious you’ll be.” Sage words from the therapist I saw in college, and I wasn’t having any of it. It was a cold-water-to-the-face moment. Was he suggesting that I give up? If I don’t try to control my situation, then what am I supposed […]

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“The more you try to control everything around you, the more anxious you’ll be.” Sage words from the therapist I saw in college, and I wasn’t having any of it. It was a cold-water-to-the-face moment. Was he suggesting that I give up? If I don’t try to control my situation, then what am I supposed to do?

Worry. Stress. Overthinking. They’re all born from a desire to control your situation or environment. Only the more you try to control, the more worried, stressed, or anxious you become. A pattern begins to emerge that looks a little like a non-ideal (or horrible) situation, attempt to control, fail, worry (overthink, become stressed out). Wash. Rinse. Repeat. This is no way to live. Think square peg, round hole. Which will eventually fit if you continue to jam the peg in the hole repeatedly, thereby shaving down the sides….

It’s easy for me (and my college therapist) to say that worrying or stressing about everything you can’t control will suck the life out of you, leaving you depleted and lacking mental fortitude. Yet, simply stopping is nearly impossible.

And when you inevitably add in a heavy dose of self-shaming, guilt, or micromanaging others (or yourself), you fall into the resignation that this is just who you are. Or, as U2 would say, “You’re stuck in a moment you can’t get out of.” Meanwhile, your situation hasn’t changed.

Like so many of you, I have firsthand knowledge of being “stuck in a moment” with no exit signs lighting my way out. It can be utterly debilitating and easy to fall into the control spiral where helplessness or hopelessness find refuge.

If only you could snap your fingers and get a new job, divorce your spouse (or change them), spontaneously recover from a chronic illness, buy a new home, or afford live-in help for a dependent adult or aging parents. The reality is that this kind of significant life change probably requires resources that just aren’t available.

I don’t have a magical solution to your problems or mine. However, there is a glimmer of light in all of this. There are skills you can apply when you catch yourself in that wave of mind-spiraling, heart-pounding, shallow-breathing ocean of stress that leaves you feeling frustrated and anxious.

I’d love to sit passively and wait for the waves of life to calm, but I’m a take-action type of a gal. When my therapist told me my need to control was getting in the way of my peace, I knew I needed to find a loophole where action, worry, and my unchanging situation could coexist. Below is a snapshot of what I learned and suggestions I often pose to my clients.

Ask yourself, what can I control? Knowing the difference between what you can and can’t control will free up your mental space. This isn’t a new concept. Take, for example, the Serenity Prayer, “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” and Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler”: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Case in point, you can control your response to your boss, co-worker, spouse, or neighbor by setting boundaries or understandings around how you want them to treat you. But you can’t control their actions or inactions. You can control doing your own research, taking breaks to rest or play, or living a healthier lifestyle. You can’t control that you or someone you love has a chronic illness or the needs of someone aging.

The goal is to strike a flexible balance with your perspective about the situation since the external is unchanging. It’s not going to be perfect. And yet, knowing what you can change and accepting what you cannot reduces your square-peg-round-hole moments and helps keep your head above water.

Intentionally worry and stress. I know it sounds counterintuitive. I’ll point out that you’re stressing anyway, so I’m suggesting you do it on purpose. Here’s what you’ll need: a calendar or reminder prompt, a quiet space to yourself (the car, bathroom, or closet will work), 10-15 minutes, and an unchangeable situation that has you ridden with worry and stress. Got it? Good.

Now, schedule a daily 10- or 15-minute block of worry time into your calendar. Consistency is key here, so plan for the same time every day if possible. Pro tip: Right before bedtime isn’t a good idea.

When you worry throughout your day, make a mental note or jot it down. Then remind yourself you’ll worry about it at the scheduled time. When worry time arrives, you’re on. Worry about every single thing. Go down every rabbit hole, get caught in every spider web, and go through every worst-case scenario for 10-15 minutes.

When the time’s up, so are you. Get up and go back to living, knowing that you’ll be able to revisit your worries tomorrow at the same time. Research shows that consistently repeating this process will ultimately help you to delay your stress-induced thinking. Instead of the mind-twisting and gut-wrenching doom and gloom spiral, there’s more (ahem) control over where your mind travels.

I want to be abundantly clear that these suggestions do not magically solve or resolve your ultimate problem. Instead, they allow a perspective or mindset shift, granting you breathing room from your experience and a calmer nervous system. This creates space around you and the stress, so you’re better positioned to make well-thought-out and intentional decisions or actions.

Allow me to illustrate what it looks like with an activity. Take your hands and put them in front of your face so that your palms touch your nose. What do you see? I see my hands, slivers of light between my fingers, and partial objects. Your hands represent your worry and stress. When you don’t have coping skills, connecting to others, yourself, or even seeing the full scope of things is challenging.

Now, lower your hands to your lap. What do you see? Probably a great deal more. This act represents what it’s like with coping skills during an experience when you can’t change the situation. The problem isn’t gone. It’s right there resting on your lap. But it’s not in your face, which allows for more peace. 

Coping also isn’t a one-and-done situation. It’s an action word. For the most significant impact, it needs to be repeated, like an annoying commercial or that song you can’t stop singing to yourself.

Here are a few more bonus suggestions for variety:

Breathe. Research shows that intentionally slowing your breathing where your exhale is longer than your inhale will calm your nervous system and anxiety response. To practice, breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of six.

Check-in with the story you’re telling yourself. What are you telling yourself about your current situation? Would you say that to a friend? Probably not. Self-talk and the stories we tell ourselves about our situation are usually based more on distress and despair than hope. How can you reframe your story and self-talk? Or, even better, what would you tell a good friend?

Plan something you can look forward to. This doesn’t need to cost money. Catch up with a friend, go for a walk, read, spend five minutes alone with absolutely no responsibilities, or do whatever brings you joy.

Ask for support. If you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to be working, it’s time to ask a therapist for help. Additionally, if your situation is life-threatening, for example, if you’re in an abusive relationship, start here. You don’t have to go through your experience alone. There are qualified therapists and facilities that can help.

When my college therapist suggested I try something other than worrying, I thought I was doomed (and needed a new therapist). His words still ring true. When you’re in the middle of a stress-filled, unchangeable situation with no perceivable way out, you will feel stressed, worried, anxious, or a combination of everything. And there’s also a way to find a little island of peace during life’s waves.

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She specializes in working with couples and individuals to strengthen their relationships so they can connect more deeply to themselves and each other. When not in the office, you’ll find her walking her pups or planning her next vacation with her husband.

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