Think back to a day when everything seemed to go wrong. The circumstances might have been out of your control but even so, with every problem your frustration, and your anxiety, grew. As human beings, we have a need to have a "sense of control" of ourselves and our environment. This isn’t the same as wanting to control others or wanting power. You don’t have to be a controlling person to feel the anxiety rise when your sense of control diminishes.
Our sense of control grows when things in our life have a sense of order, for example, following a routine every day allows you to know what to expect next. It gives you a sense of control over what you will experience during the day. But having a sense of control doesn’t necessarily mean you need to control everything; a child might feel a sense of control in their life because they trust the adults around to create a secure environment.
When you have an anxiety disorder, you might have an exaggerated need for a sense of control. You might excessively worry when your belief of what is to happen next does awry. You might panic if the daily routine is disrupted in any way. When your sense of control is diminished, you feel like you can’t cope. Without your sense of control you feel helpless, powerless, helpless. Your anxiety grows.
While we all need a sense of control in our lives, we also need to accept that there are times we do not and cannot control our environment or what happens around us. We have to learn to be flexible and accept uncertainty in our lives.
Uncertainty Doesn’t Always Equal Bad
If you constantly worry when things don’t go the way you planned or have difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of what will come next, you probably associate uncertainty with a bad outcome. You might automatically assume that no matter how the situation is going to turn out, it isn’t going to be good. You want to control the outcome because they you can be assured it will turn out the "correct" way.
Learning to Tolerate Uncertainty
Learning to accept a lower sense of control in your life is possible. To do so, you must learn to accept uncertainty as a part of life. When faced with a lack of control, or uncertainty, you might automatically assume the worse. Once you do, you might fixate on this as the only possible ending. You repeat it to yourself and worry endlessly about it.
One way begin to lower your need to control your environment is to imagine several different endings to the situation. For example, imagine you went for a job interview. The interviewer said he would call you within the next few days to let you know if you got the job. You are anxious (because of the uncertainty and because you have no control over the situation). The next day, when you haven’t heard anything, you assume the worse. You assume you did not get the job.
Instead of allowing your anxiety to build, think of three possible scenarios:
- I did not get the job.
- The interviewer will call tomorrow to tell me I got the job.
- I didn’t get the job but still have a different interview tomorrow.
When you have different scenarios to consider, the worst case scenario loses importance. It no longer is the only thought in your mind; it is only one of several thoughts. You can change your focus, realizing that uncertainty doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. You can choose which thoughts you want and accept that although you didn’t fully control the situation, you did your best and can control your reaction.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.