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7 Things to Do When Life Feels Out of Control

This is how you gain confidence in the midst of chaos.

by Ashley Abramson
Originally Published: 
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Whether we admit it or not, we all seek a sense of control. Parenthood is the perfect example. In an ideal world, you’d be able to protect your kids from all harm (and, obviously, get them to behave the way you want). You’ve probably realized by now, though, your best intentions don’t always translate into your ideal scenario, which can feel like a harsh wake-up call.

Realizing you’re not as in control as you once thought is upsetting for good reason. Control offers predictability and comfort we all naturally crave, says Marianna Strongin, Ph.D., a New York-based psychologist and founder of Strong in Therapy. Losing your grip can feel mentally, emotionally, and even physically dysregulating.

Luckily, the cycle doesn’t have to continue. While you may not be able to control everything that’s happening around you, it is possible to regain your footing and build some confidence in the midst of chaos. Here are seven things to do when you feel a loss of control, according to therapists.

1. Take a Few Deep Breaths

Whether it’s your kids trashing the living room or the state of the world throwing you for a loop, you’d be amazed at the power of a couple of deep breaths. Andrew Smiler, Ph.D., licensed therapist and U.S. mental health advisor for Movember, suggests taking a minute to self-soothe in the heat of the moment with even just a minute or two of slow, deep inhales and exhales. You’ll not only feel physically calmer after the fact; you’ll also be able to think more logically about the situation at hand — and as a result, act more decisively.

You might feel uneasy about carving out time for yourself, especially if you’re working hard not to lose more control. “If the kids have already trashed the living room, it won’t get more trashed in another 60 seconds,” he says. “So take a minute to just sit still and breathe, and let at least some of the stress or feeling of being out of control just pass.”

2. Cross a Few Things Off Your To-Do List

When life feels like a crap-storm, crossing items off your to-do list — even if they seem totally inconsequential — can feel oddly satisfying and even soothing. “Doing something useful can give you a sense that something’s getting done, which can help you feel like you have some control,” Smiler says.

What you accomplish doesn’t have to be related to what feels out of control. For example, if things have been unpredictable at work, you could spend the afternoon cleaning out the garage and still feel empowered.

If your to-do list itself is what feels overwhelming, take baby steps. Smiler says even writing down your tasks and projects can help because it moves them outside of your limited-capacity brain. When you feel up to it, dedicate a chunk of time — even 15 or 20 minutes — to getting those things done. Little by little, you’ll feel a much-needed sense of accomplishment and agency.

3. Maintain a Predictable Routine

You may not be able to control what’s happening around you, but it can help to zone in on the parts of your life you can control—such as your own routines. Ashley Quamme, a Georgia-based psychotherapist, says it’s especially important to implement daily morning and evening routines.

What you do and when you do it is up to you; the idea is that you get to decide. Maybe you work out and eat breakfast at the same time every morning, or you shower and read a book before you go to bed at 10 PM. No matter how you structure those hours, Quamme says bookending your day with a bit of soothing predictability — times when you know exactly what’s going to happen and how — can help you weather unexpected storms in the middle.

4. Name Your Emotions

Sometimes, it’s not only your circumstances, but how you feel about them that leads to that out-of-control feeling. If you’re facing big or unfamiliar emotions about something that’s happening in your life, Strongin says the first step is to try to identify them.

“Naming your emotions can provide a lot of relief,” she says. “It gets them from inside your head to outside your head, and then you have agency to tackle how to handle them.”

Whatever you’re feeling, try to name it as specifically as possible. Once you have a precise label for your emotion, it’ll probably feel less mysterious and overwhelming.

Strongin suggests recognizing what you’re feeling without trying to escape it. “The goal is to cope with your feelings, not control them,” she says. “Allow yourself to feel what you feel in whatever quantity you feel it, and then find ways to digest and make sense of it.” One way to do that is validating what you’re feeling—tell yourself it’s totally normal to respond in whatever way you are. Once you remove the desire to escape your feelings, you should feel more agency.

5. Choose Your Company Wisely

If you notice yourself losing grip in other areas of your life, Smiler suggests being especially choosy about who you hang out with. Different people give off different energy, so it may help to focus on the folks who help you feel more calm, centered, and grounded.

“A lot of us have friends who, when we hang out with them, it’s a party and you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “At a point when you feel like a lot of your life is out of control, choose to be with the people who feel more in control than those who aren’t.”

To go the extra mile, Smiler suggests writing down people (and even places and activities) that make you feel out of control, and doing your best to minimize situations where you feel a lack of agency. You might not be able to decide who your family is or where you work, but you can decide who you hang out with and how you spend your time.

6. Take a Break From Your Phone

You may not notice it, but the constant influx of information coming from your smartphone might be contributing to that out-of-control feeling. Whenever you’re feeling vulnerable, Smiler says it can help to take breaks from scrolling through social media and news feeds, where something triggering could pop up at any moment.

That said, you don’t have to ditch all technology — phone games, for example, might even help when you’re feeling out of control. “If you’re playing a bot game where it’s you and the computer, that could actually be pretty calming,” says Smiler. “You don’t know if you’ll win, but you know how the game works, and there’s a limited universe of things that could happen there.”

7. Practice Gratitude

You may not feel like there’s a whole lot to be thankful for when things are spiraling, but Quamme says a basic gratitude practice can play a huge role in keeping you feeling grounded. Every day, try to identify at least a few things you’re thankful for—whether your health, your home, or your family.

Expressing gratitude for the things in your life that are going well can help you focus less on the overwhelming parts. Plus, Quamme says, actively being grateful can improve your resilience to future stressors, whenever they may come.

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