In times of crisis — such as those we are living through now —our mental state often seems only to exacerbate an already extremely challenging situation, becoming a major obstacle to rational thought, learning to thrive and taking practical steps to survive the temporary process.
When your mind gets stuck in this state, a chain reaction begins. Fear begins to narrow your capacity for clear thinking and it becomes harder to see the bigger picture and the positive possibilities in front of you. As perspective shrinks, you become even more anxious about the present and the future.
It’s important to remember that our emotional and psychological response to crises is natural and very human — our brain’s automatic response is to be reactive. But the truth is it often bring us more suffering by cluttering our mind and keeping us from seeing clearly the best course of action. It pays to know when this happens and learn to regulate your emotions accordingly.
“When our amygdala, the small part of our brain that regulates fight or flight is set off, we have to avoid taking the bait of our raw emotional reactions that make us want to overreact,” explains Kris Lee, Ed.D., a behavioral science expert and author of Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World.
The way to overcome this natural tendency is to improve our mental resilience — managing our minds in a way that increases our ability to face unpredictability and uncertainty. This skill can be nurtured and trained.
We can’t fully plan for a life crisis — it arrives without warning, turning our well-organized schedules into chaos. But we can prepare ourselves to thrive despite the chaos of life. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position for many people and will generally give rise to varying levels of uncertainty-related anxiety.
So how do we cope? A more beautiful question is, how did some of the greatest philosophers overcome the chaos, randomness and the unpredictability of life?
Great Philosophers Focus on What They Can Control
Uncertainty is unsettling. Regardless of the size, obstacles exist and are inevitable. Call it Murphy’s Law or just the nature of life. But constant worrying and panic won’t stop a crisis from happening, but it will only waste your time and energy.
Setbacks will happen, the only question is: How will you react when they appear? The uncomfortable truth in life is that you can’t control every event, experience, or outcome. Philosophers put their resources where it matters most by focusing on what they can control — even when the only thing they can control is their effort and attitude.
Epictetus, a Greek philosopher of 1st and early 2nd centuries C.E., and an exponent of Stoicism (a form of psychological discipline), classified things as being under our control or not under our control.
His classic Enchiridion (The Good Life Handbook) starts with this basic idea of control; “Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
That powerful statement is also the same sentiment expressed by the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer; God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Nieburh came up with that prayer around 1934. The basic idea of focusing on the actions and experiences within your control has been around for a while.
According to Epictetus, to make the most of life, divide your moment-to-moment concerns into two categories;
- The things you can control
- And the things you can’t
The key to maintaining a positive attitude in life is to know the difference. Whenever you feel any sort of anger, desire or aversion, you look at the situation in terms of those two bins.
David Cain of Raptitude agrees. He argues “By reclaiming your energy, all day every day, from your sphere of concern (the range of things that appeal to your emotions) to your sphere of influence (the range of things you can affect) you are continually developing the essential Stoic skill of taking your lumps as they come, with minimal fuss and tantrum.”
Don’t bother worrying about whether there will be problems. There will be plenty of them, you’ll work your way through every one of them.
In the current crisis, you don’t control how many of the people you know will get the virus, what safety measures your government will take or which goods are available in the store whenever you decide to go shopping argues Niklas Göke. But you control washing your hands as often and thoroughly as you can, social distancing when you go out for essential goods, staying home unless it’s necessary to go out, and keeping in touch with loved ones and colleagues at work.
A stoic mindset is now more important than ever. In the face of adversity, the Stoics s use their energy to create greater possibilities, growth, and mastery of the very problem they face.
“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material,” wrote Epictetus.
Adversities, obstacles, and uncertainties inherently contain the ingredients to their own dissolution. They provoke the best of our abilities to get over, around and through them. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic once said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
The attitude of seeing obstacles as holding the very key to their own disarmament is a powerful way of looking at chaos. “Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it,” Epictetus argues.
Control What You Can
You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you CAN control the way you respond. And in your response is your greatest power.
No amount of worrying can change the future of the past. According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning your attention to the relatively small realm you can control.
The good news is, you can do something about most things you stress about. Start making an action list and do something about things you can control — prepare your plan of action to keep thriving. Beside each of the items you can control (for example, improving your mental and personal health), include an action item.
Whilst you are doing everything you can to be safe on these difficult times, it pays to prioritise your action plan for self-isolation — focus on what you can do now to protect yourself and your loved ones. There are a lot of variables in life, most of which you have no control over but you can’t change what’s already happened or the fact that a pandemic has changed everything.
Charles R. Swindoll, an evangelical Christian pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher once said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it”. He couldn't have said that any better. How you react to even the most catastrophic events in life determines whether you will just survive or thrive.
While the current pandemic has forced us to practice social distancing and self-isolation, it’s not the only health threat we should be worried about — our mental and physical health is also at stake. Take this opportunity to focus on things you can actually change to stay healthy.
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