Stories from Self-Care Tips

I’m a mental-health counselor, and this is my favorite coping technique for anxiety about lack of control

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsApril 30, 2020

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Graphics: Well+Good Creative

Lately, my family has been circulating lines from Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” in our group text chat. It’s definitely worth a full read, but the TL;DR is that the things we can’t control have the power to teach us about ourselves and others. It’s a lesson that mental health counselor Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, co-founder of modern therapy practice Octave, wants everyone to remember right now, and you can put it into action by making use of one of her favorite coping techniques for anxiety about lack of control. To do so, switch your normal, daily to-do list to a can/can’t-control list.

According to Scarlett, a can/can’t-control list is one of the best coping techniques for anxiety about lack of control right now because it acts as a counterforce to anticipatory anxiety. “We don’t know when the social distancing will end, when the curve will flatten, or what the world will look like when businesses finally reopen,” she says. “This makes us feel like our lives are not in our control, which triggers feelings of anxiety. If we focus on the things we can control, we can rebalance the perceived hold we have on our lives, therefore decreasing the anxiety.”

“We have full control of how we react to situations, even if we can’t control the situations themselves. Giving ourselves back this control brings a sense of calm and security.” —Kristen Scarlett, LMHC

Thinking like this basically leaves us with the false impression that nothing (nothing!) is in our control, but that’s just not true. “Realizing that we have control of how much news we take in, when we look at our emails and social media and who we connect with each day can help us feel better,” says Scarlett. You get to decide if you practice yoga or go for a run, whether you watch Ozark or Tiger King, and what delicious, pantry meal you make tonight. Most importantly, though, you have full autonomy over how the things that fall under the “can’t control” category actually affect you, says Scarlett. “Even more gratifying is when we understand that we have full control of how we react to situations, even if we can’t control the situations themselves. Giving ourselves back this control brings a sense of calm and security.”

It’s worth noting differentiating between what you can and can’t control in the thick of the moment isn’t always simple (like, say, when your FaceTime service cuts out while you’re talking to your mom, and you truly feel like throwing an adult tantrum). And that’s why, says Scarlett, the can/can’t-control list is key to keep posted somewhere you can easily access so you can read it as a coping technique for anxiety when it starts to spike. “Steps like ‘set regular work hours,’ ‘practice yoga,’ ‘set boundaries with friends, family, and work’ are action steps and will help you feel as if you’ve taken back the control.”

It’s 11 a.m. when I’m writing this, and I’m already experiencing a lot of mental turmoil over the things I can’t control: the health of an immunocompromised family member, the general “when will this end?” dread, and—yes—the melodramatic fact that my birthday felt more like a blip than a celebration this year. So I sit down and write my version of this is to help me cope with a lack of control:

can control how much water I drink today. (I can’t control if it rains, thus barring me from enjoying my daily walk.)

can call my relative who’s at high risk of getting sick right now. (I can’t keep him from getting sick.)

I can donate to my favorite wellness-minded small businesses to support their employees during this time. (I can’t control whether or not the business keeps its doors open.)

As Rumi writes, “The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.” So, that’s what I’m doing—inviting in all the thoughts and worries, those which I can and cannot control.

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