One of the biggest ways to increase anxiety and stress is trying to control something that we have no control over. This is the definition of futile. Yet we do this quite often when we are anxious or worried about a potential future event. Our intentions are good (we want to prevent the bad thing from happening) but our attempts at controlling the world around us will actually increase our anxiety. The more we spend our energy on things outside of our control, the more our frustration grows, and frustration in the midst of anxiety can lead to panic. Not a good outcome generally.
In a previous post I talked about the difference between emotion-focused and problem-focused coping. Determining where you have control in a situation will dictate whether you are better off trying to influence the problem itself (problem-focused) or trying to influence how you feel or react to the problem (emotion-focused). Most of the time, due in part to the fact that deep down inside most of us wish we were Jedi knights and could wield power over the environment, we focus too much of our energy on trying to control things that are not within our domain of influence. It goes hand-in-hand with being a “mover and a shaker” or having a Type-A Personality. Letting go and adjusting to the situation can be difficult, if not downright antithetical to their inner most being.
So what is one to do when the thing that causes them so much trouble is outside of their control? One option: You learn to surf. Of course, surfing is a metaphor for this post, but feel free to actually learn how to surf. In a previous blog I recommend learning some Improv techniques as well. So you have some options. But learning to surf (even metaphorically) can help change your mindset in terms of how you view your relationship with your environment. Not to mention, you don’t have to give up your Type-A Personality to become a surfer (although you might want to). You can harness your energy and drive into strengthening your ability to respond to the unexpected.
Surfers do not attempt to control the ocean. That would be ridiculous. A surfer trains herself to be able to respond to whatever the ocean throws her way. When you are in a stressful situation with other people, you can convince yourself that you can control what others do. When you are a surfer on the ocean, you are under no such delusions about what is in your control. Getting more comfortable with what you have control over, and letting go of the things that you do not have control over, is one of the best ways to improve your ability to stay on top of the waves that come your way (metaphorically and literally).
Shawn Healy, Ph.D.
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