A lot of us are feeling the burn at the moment. Let’s be honest, it’s no surprise - the world feels like a total shit show. People are going wild for petrol, we’re still not sure whether the pandemic is coming to an end or if there’s going to be another wave, and energy prices look like they’re going to skyrocket (and that’s just keeping the list manageable).
How the hell do we keep it together when reality appears to be falling apart around us?
The first trick is to get out of catastrophising. The world isn’t really falling apart, despite the media doing a marvelous job of trying to convince us otherwise. Zoom in for a moment. Let’s look at your world, your reality. Leave that shit that you can’t control out of view. What can you control? What’s in your power to tame?
A lot of the time, we feel stressed because we feel out of control. We’re riding a horse that has lost its mind through a woods full of low hanging branches. There’s no clear path to a solution to our problems and we feel disempowered and at the mercy of the Fates.
Part of that is true. We are at the behest of whatever the Universe decides to throw at us. The trick is how we frame this internally. Catastrophising, if you aren’t familiar with it, is when our mind fills with irrational thoughts about the severity of a situation that we’re in. Often, it will spiral out of control, which is where the serious stress kicks in. We’ll use that powerful imagination of ours to conjure up all of the ways in which the future will be bad and all the things that could possibly go wrong.
In therapy, there’s a tool we use called Socratic questioning. Quelle surprise, it comes from that well known Greek philosopher Socrates. It’s where we challenge our thoughts against what’s happening in reality. For example, I could have a catastrophic thought in my head that “everyone in my workplace hates me”. Now, I reckon I’m not that much of an arsehole that everyone is going to hate me, so I’m going to take a moment to challenge this thought.
What’s making me think that everyone hates me? Well, there was that incident with Jerry on Monday where we totally disagreed on an approach and he stormed off in a huff. Now he’s not talking to me.
Then I’m going to ask myself “Who else doesn’t like you at work?”
Thinking about this for a while, I realise that my interactions with everyone else are actually really good. It’s just Jerry that I don’t get on with. What I’ve done is allow my one negative interaction with Jerry to taint my experiences with the rest of my work colleagues, perhaps because I’ve got issues with people-pleasing and someone being annoyed at me sets off a load of internal triggers.
I can take this a step further and say “well, I’m not responsible for Jerry’s feelings. I don’t have any control over whether or not he wants to sulk and not speak to me. Perhaps he should work on his own emotional maturity.”
See how that situation has been totally reframed? Now, I’m not even worried about Jerry, because I have no responsibility for how Jerry is going to react and, to be frank, he should probably do a bit of work on himself so that he can handle being disagreed with without having a tantrum.
When we’re getting those anxious thoughts and the catastrophising creeps in, we can stop for a moment and reflect on the following questions:
- Is this thought actually true, when I look at the reality of what’s going on?
- How likely is it that the thing that I’m worrying about is going to actually happen?
- If a friend came to me with the same worries, what would I say to them?
- Is this thought helpful in providing a solution to my problem?
That last one brings me nicely on to my second point, of focusing on a solution rather than the problem itself.
When we try to solve a problem, it gives us a sense of control over that problem. If I were to be made redundant, for example, the problem is “I have no income and need to pay my mortgage”. I can approach this with catastrophising and imagine all of the bad things that could potentially happen from not being able to pay my bills, but this doesn’t help me in the present. What would help me is if I put a lid on that imagination and focused on a solution - in this case, start looking for other work.
I may not find anything, and yes I may run into some financial difficulties going forwards, but I am at the very least taking control of the one thing that I can - myself and how I respond to the situation. That sense of control can help to ease the stress of the experience and, if I’m lucky, resolve the issue entirely.
Lastly, we have to accept that we are living in an uncertain Universe. No matter how well we plan or how adequately we feel we’ve prepared, shit will happen and it will surprise us from time to time.
Being comfortable with this fact can be challenging, but I like to see it in terms of “mental capacity”. I look at my mind as a battery with a certain amount of energy in it that I can use each day. If I am spending that energy on things that are outside of my control, be that through anxiety, catastrophising, or blind panic, it means that I’m using energy that could be better spent on tackling the things that I can control.
Tackling the things that we can control is the only real way that we can resolve any situation that we are in. As much as the Universe can be uncertain, we have the power to create certainty in ourselves and our own actions.