At a time when many are (silently) struggling with mental health, trying to find their way through the uncertainty that enshrouds us, my thoughts keep going back to a conversation I had with a mental health professional on a dark winter evening fifteen years ago.

Freshly graduated in psychology yet still wrestling with ghosts from my own childhood, I was in deep mental pain, fighting bouts of depression that plunged me into depths which now, thankfully, seem like distant valleys.

One evening before Christmas, the feelings of isolation and alienation got so intense that I went roaming through the streets of the town where I lived at the time, feeling so overwhelmed with life, I literally didn’t know where to go next. It felt like my mind, normally quite organized, was descending into chaos. And it scared the hell out of me.

I called a mental healthcare hotline that evening, something I thought I’d never do. Back then, I thought it was a sign of weakness. Another proof of failure. An admission that, despite having just completed college summa cum laude and having all the prospects in the world, I didn’t know how to live with myself.

A woman picked up the phone. Her voice was gentle and matter of fact. I told her I was scared of losing control of my own thougths. Of being swallowed by a river without being able to swim.

I asked her what to do.

Although much of the conversation that ensued is now a vague and distant memory, of which I recall very little, I’ll never forget one thing the woman said:

“You’re not losing control. You’re taking control by choosing to speak to me.”

It was such a profound and powerful reframing of the moment, I still get tears in my eyes when I think back of it.

The woman on the phone was right.

I didn’t wake up as a shiny happy person the next morning – life is not as straightforward as that – but by changing my frame of mind, the woman had given me a gift that would last much longer: the belief that, even when life sweeps us off our feet and makes us feel powerless, there are always tiny actions we can take to change things for the better and improve our situation.

Taking back control

Fast forward fifteen years, and the advice from this mental healthcare worker seems as relevant as ever as we enter the third year of the pandemic. For two years now, we have been inundated with ominous headlines that direct our attention to forces that are largely outside of our individual control. With no finish line in sight, the uncertainty can leave us feeling despondent. Like we are stuck in square one, at the mercy of forces we cannot control.

When will this end?

The truth is, no one knows when the pandemic will end, and despite the technocratic illusion that there are instant fixes to everything, nature has a way of reminding us of its unpredictability – and that there are limitations to what we can control.

What we can do, however, is shift our focus to the things we can control. Or as Stephen Covey would put it: we can redirect our attention from our circle of concern (which contains all our worries) to our circle of control (which encompasses everything we have direct influence over). By focusing on our circle of control, we feel more empowered and in charge of our own life.

First, that means shutting out things we cannot control as much as possible. For example, have you considered limiting your intake of news?

If you habitually check your news feed a few times a day, continuously inviting stress and anxiety into your life, why not set aside one moment each week to catch up on headlines – and ignore the news the rest of the week? After all, why would you expend energy on reminding yourself of things you have no influence over?

A short and pointed read on becoming a more mindful consumer of information is Rolf Dobelli’s Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life. Trust me: even if you don’t like or agree with everything this author has to say, he will certainly get you thinking about the pointlessness of filling your brain with doom and gloom that’s beyond your control.

Second, a great way to (re)gain a sense of control over your life is by developing small habits or routines that you can perform consistently. That’s because habits and routines give you a small sense of accomplishment, creating positive momentum that you can build on to tackle bigger challenges in your life.

The key here is not to make Big Resolutions, which can quickly fall by the wayside, but to define small and foolproof 5- to 10-minute actions that you can perform every day – even on the bad days.

A great example is from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who suggests you make up your bed right after you wake up in the morning (a ritual he picked up from an Indian monk). It sounds mundane to the point of being meaningless, but because it is a little positive act of self-care, it reinforces the feeling that you are in control of your own life. To learn more about building and sustaining habits, check out James Clear’s Atomic Habits – a modern classic on the topic.

Finally, if you are going through a rough patch right now, don’t feel embarrassed to ask someone for help. Whether that is a friend or a mental health professional. You’re not being weak. You’re showing courage.

There are many things in this world we have little or no influence over. The environment we grew up in. How others treat us. Events that happen to us. But there’s always something we can do to take back control. And sometimes, that may mean asking for help as a first step, because we can’t see clearly ourselves anymore.

In 2022, focus on what you can control, however small. For it is always tiny actions that can make big worries seem a bit smaller. And it is always small steps that lead you on a bigger journey.

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Photos: Speulderbos, The Netherlands, December 2021