Perceived control, the degree to which an individual believes a situation or outcome can be influenced by their actions, has been consistently associated with emotional well-being, an ability to cope with stress, and improved performance across diverse settings and populations. The COVID-19 pandemic, described freely as unprecedented, has likely compromised that sense of control. Beyond the concerns for our health and well-being, there is uncertainty about when things will return to “normal.” Or whether we will have to adapt to a new normal. A sense of powerlessness or lack of control during a challenging situation can lead to Learned Helplessness - the learned belief that our efforts are futile, leading to inaction even when opportunities for change are present. This can increase stress and anxiety and lead to poorer mental health. In this moment, when there is considerable uncertainty, how do we maintain our mental health and well-being? Essentially, we need to find a way to regain a sense of control.
Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, when reflecting on the horrors he experienced in Auschwitz, much of which was outside of his control, noted:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Choose One’s Attitude
In choosing one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, we must first acknowledge there will be situations that are out of our control, that are uncomfortable or distressing. During such a time of challenge and change, when our focus is most often on what we might be missing out on or losing, it can be helpful to consciously strive to shift one’s perspective or attitude. This may be done by reflecting on questions such as:
What can I still do? Even through the pandemic there are enjoyable and meaningful activities we can still do – schedule them into your week.
What can I do instead? Be creative. If we cannot go to the gym, is there a way to exercise from home? If I cannot see my colleagues, what is an alternative way to connect?
What is the opportunity in this moment? Tap into your sense of gratitude and hope. The opportunity may be one of growth and learning. But equally, with the challenges we are facing, it may simply be to take a break. To slow down. To rest. To reflect.
By changing the narrative in this way, it helps us operate from an Internal Locus of Control – the belief that our behaviours influence our life circumstances and experiences. Operating from an internal locus of control is associated with positive outcomes in physical and mental health, work, relationships, and in managing stress.
Choose One’s Own Way
Shifting our perspective, or changing our attitude is of limited value if we simply stop there. To create change, a shift in perspective or attitude relies on a shift in behaviour too. Choosing one’s own way is an acknowledgement that while we cannot control every aspect of our situation, there are practical and concrete actions we can take to improve our situation. If the objective is to maintain our health through COVID-19, then a good place to start would be exercise, sleep and connections, as well as following the relevant medical advice. If we are faced with job insecurity, then a meaningful action might be to reach out to our networks, update our resume, consider how we might work differently, and review our budgets. If we are faced with working from home for an extended period, then establishing and maintaining routine is vital, including frequent breaks and ensuring work does not encroach into our home-life. If we are feeling overwhelmed with everything that is going on right now – a very human response, given the circumstances – then a helpful behaviour might be to limit our exposure to media coverage, and to reach out to our doctor or a psychologist.
We are faced with unprecedented times. The local and global impact of the pandemic – to both our health and the economy – is unfamiliar territory. We do not have control over every aspect of our situation. If our energy is a limited resource, then let’s focus that energy, not on the things outside of our control, but on what we can control – our attitude and behaviour. Choose one’s attitude. Choose one’s own way.