1. List your worries. This is deceptively simple: unidentified worries tend to accumulate, creating stress and anxiety without being challenged. Knowing your specific concerns gives you focus. You might find that you can disregard many of your worries and some may have quick, easy solutions. When you write down your problems, instead of being deafened by them clamouring for your attention, you can separate the genuine ones from the trivial. You can then address them one by one, without worrying (more!) that you are forgetting something.
2. Change your perspective from uncertainty to curiosity. Ask yourself what might happen if you do something, rather than worrying about undesirable outcomes. Your mind will give you dozens of answers without you needing to consciously try to answer the questions – and many of them will be positive or neutral, not the negatives which feeling uncertain makes you focus on.
3. Write a to-do list and so something – not matter how small. While there is evidence that people who do the easiest tasks on their to-do list rarely get around to doing the difficult ones (see Real Focus, from Psychologies magazine), when you are so overwhelmed that you feel paralysed, doing anything is proof that you have some level of control. You can choose to do something, even if it seems insignificant. It isn’t about getting through your to-do list when you feel out of control of your life: it’s about challenging the notion that you can’t do anything.
4. Make a plan, any plan. You don’t have to carry out the plan right now – or even anytime soon. The important thing is to consider how you will do something, whether it’s taking the holiday of a lifetime or losing weight. Work out the practicalities. If there are things you don’t know, make a note of your questions. Think of where you can research your plan. Making plans shows you that there are possibilities; you don’t have to adhere to your plans, but you know you could.
5. Declutter and then organise your stuff. Regaining (or just gaining!) control of your possessions makes your environment more pleasant and reminds you that you can control some aspects of your life. It’s a tangible step. You have to physically throw out (or recycle, donate, etc.) and rearrange items. For a long time, I resisted the idea that being in tidy surroundings can help you to think more clearly, but then I tried it (the threat of being crushed by towers of books forced my hand somewhat) and found out that it works. Try it – the worst that can happen is that you have a tidier home for a while!
6. Do something for someone else. When we are feeling overwhelmed and out of control, we tend to be lost inside our own thoughts. This doesn’t mean you are being selfish; it’s just difficult to think about anything else when you are in such a state of mind. Doing something for another person (or animal) forces you outside of your head. You can do anything – donate to charity, perform a random act of kindness, give a friend an impromptu gift, make a special dinner for someone… Anything you like.
7. Face your fears. Disclaimer: I’m NOT suggesting you do something which endangers yourself or others. I’m saying that if you are afraid of doing something which is relatively safe, doing it is often the only way to prove that you can act in the face of fear. Just do it without expecting a specific result – check your bank balance, ask for a pay rise, talk to a stranger at the bus stop. In most cases, you will be no worse off than if you never tried – only now you know you can feel the fear and do it anyway.
8. Acknowledge that you can’t control everything. Sounds obvious, right? Yet so many of us get stressed about not being able to control everything. Acknowledging that some things are beyond your control paradoxically reminds you that you can control other aspects of your life. Even if you can only control 10% of your life, that’s a lot more than 0% and can make a lot of difference.
9. Instigate an Action Week. Decide to spend a week doing as much as you can to make changes in your life. Other time periods may work well – I like an Action Day, personally – but a week gives you long enough to start seeing effects, without being so long that you burn out and are left exhausted. The idea is to power through what you want to do without overthinking everything. Try that new dance class, complete a project, start online dating… You will surprise yourself with how much you can do when you focus on action rather than second-guessing yourself.
10. Be creative – make something. You can make anything you like and it doesn’t matter how good or bad the result. Concentrate on the processes of creativity: gathering ideas, selecting materials, developing skills, experimenting. You may find you lose yourself in a state of flow, which is amazing. But even if you don’t, you have spent some time making something and turning your thoughts outwards.
11. Learn to work with your natural tendencies, not against them. This requires a certain level of self-awareness, so observe your behaviour for a while beforehand. Do you tend to get up early or go to bed late? Do you prefer to eat two or three large meals a day or lots of snacks? Do you work best alone or with others? When you are aware of your natural tendencies, think about how you can align your lifestyle with them. In many cases, the changes you can or can’t make will be determined by external factors and responsibilities, like needing to get the kids to school and work hours, but even a few small changes can make you feel less like you are constantly fighting against the current.
12. Try prayer and meditation. You don’t need to be religious or spiritual to try prayer and/or meditation – or for them to work. In fact, I believe they are more effective if you don’t have any expectations. Regardless of whether the universe or a deity is receiving your prayers, simply praying helps you to order your thoughts. It can remind you to be grateful for the good things in your life and give you strength during struggles. Meditation can persuade you to step outside your thoughts for a while, giving you fresh perspective on life. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn has helped me a lot, but there are plenty of other approaches and guided meditations to explore online.
13. Change your scenery. You don’t have to go on an exotic holiday to find different surroundings – look for places close to home which you don’t visit as much as you would like. For me, this is the seaside. For you, it could be a park, forest, café, garden or even a room in your house. Being somewhere other than the places we visit or use regularly can help shift our thinking, allowing us to gain greater perspective and organise our priorities.
14. Talk to a friend. I’m lucky, because I have a few close friends who are absolutely awesome. They listen to me as I obsess over everything and help me to straighten my thoughts. However, you don’t necessarily need a great friend or relative (though if you have them, you should use them!), because an animal or inanimate object can also work well. Why? Because I have noticed that simply verbalising my thoughts helps me to organise them. Without my friends saying a word, I catch myself worrying over stupid, trivial things and undermining my own confidence. Try talking about how you feel – you might be surprised. And if anyone tells you that talking to yourself is crazy, they are wrong. Just maybe do it in private, rather than at the supermarket.
15, See a doctor. I hope this list helps you, but remember to see your GP if you are feeling out of control and overwhelmed. I have been helped by everything on this list, but medication and counselling have also helped immensely. Always get professional help and support whenever you need it.