Losing our sense of control during the pandemic

On a recent trip to the supermarket, I was trying and failing miserably to open a plastic bag to tuck my broccoli into — without licking my fingers for some much-needed traction because, well, pandemic — when I nearly lost it.

My frustration only increased when all the huffing and puffing at the useless attempts to function as a normal human being caused my glasses to fog up and I could no longer see the bag I was trying to open. It was all I could do to hold it together so that I didn’t chuck the head of broccoli clear across the produce section and scream and run into the abyss.

Cue Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit “Control.” “It’s all about control,” she sings just before the beat drops, “and I’ve got lots of it.”

We all may have had more control in 1986 than we seem to have these days. (Or maybe you’re singing the 2016 Russ hit, “Losin Control.” That’s OK, too.)

Covid-19 and the seemingly unending sense of uncertainty that came with it have stripped us of much of the control we had pre-pandemic. With that loss comes grief. This has resulted in a spectrum of challenges, including feelings of despair, anxiety and depression, and general helplessness, which can hinder productivity and our ability to connect with others.

“Dealing with Covid was not in our daily repertoire of stressors,” said Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who has focused in her career on people with control issues. “There is no handbook for coping with Covid. There are no role models or well-documented research that points to how to effectively cope with a global pandemic. Covid requires a new set of coping skills that many people have never had to exercise.”

Focusing on what you can control, she said, might be one step toward mitigating that helpless feeling.

Trying to make sense of loss of control

It’s an approach that has helped Emily Oster, famed professor of economics and public policy at Brown University. Oster dedicates her time to crunching data and sharing astute, quantitative insights, but she felt so much despair at the loss of control in her life during the pandemic that she departed from her own protocol to pen a column that was all heart and no data.

“I wrote this newsletter because I’m seeing so many emails and messages from people who seemed to be struggling with the same thing. And then one day I found myself cursing at my hose spool in my basement, and I stopped to reflect on why I was so upset, and realized that there was a threat to the one thing I felt I had control over (my backyard ice rink),” Oster said via email.

“The pandemic has removed a lot of options for many of us, and I think has left many people scrambling for things they actually know what to do about. For me, recognizing this has helped me to forgive myself for obsessing in sometimes irrational ways over the things I do have control over,” she said.

Albers agreed.

“When you feel out of control, remind yourself of what is in your control and what is out of your control. Don’t waste your energy on things that you have no power to change,” Albers said.

She suggested such tasks as listing the things you control to keep your family safe like handwashing and social distancing.

How we regain a sense of control

It helps to focus your attention on the present moment, according to Albers. “You can’t control the future, but you have the power to make this moment better,” she said.

I had lost control over something as simple as placing a head of broccoli into a bag. It was more than my brain could compute and enough to put me over the edge. “To make this moment better” for me could mean opting for grocery delivery to avoid a major meltdown in the produce aisle.

Albers said it also helps to try some “grounding exercises,” in which you focus on your breathing and senses — a meditation of sorts — to break the cycle when you are feeling out of control. One example is to place your hands in water and focus on how the water feels on your hands. Try different temperatures, warm and then cool, and observe how the water feels on your skin.

Other grounding exercises — which is really just code for “creating a distraction to divert your anxious thoughts” — could include taking a walk, stretching or focusing on identifying the noises you hear at a given moment. You can also try an exercise Albers recommended: Name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell and one thing you taste.

Avoid depressing news or social media doomscrolling, as they can “trigger a cascade of hopelessness and feeling like the situation is wildly out of control,” Albers said. Pick a time frame during the day to tune in to social media and then tune back out so you don’t get dragged down by anxiety.

If all else fails, it might be worth looking to inspiration from one of the foremost Western Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön, who encourages us to embrace what she calls “groundlessness.”

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again,” Chodron said in her book “When Things Fall Apart.”

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Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t still lean into those things that you can control; it just means you loosen the grip on what you can’t.

In support I’ll add a helmet and some knee pads to my pandemic wardrobe and prepare to get tossed from the nest. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll find it in myself to smile on the way down.