How to Cope with Anxiety Caused by Things Out of Your Control

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear, or unease that arises in reaction to stressful situations. Although a natural emotional response, when anxiety becomes persistent and extreme, it can be difficult to manage. It may even start to interfere with our lives and develop into an anxiety disorder. 

There are various triggers for anxiety, such as changing jobs, an upcoming presentation, a test, or a large social event with new friends. Each of us will respond differently to these situations. Some of us may experience large amounts of stress, while others may not. But, a source of anxiety that many people can relate to is when experiences are out of their control. 

In life, we will all encounter circumstances outside of our control. When we don’t have control, we can feel unsafe and exhausted because we don’t think our actions will change our current situation. As a result, anxiety can become exacerbated, and we can feel overwhelmed, but there are ways to cope that can both reduce the stress and leave us more empowered. 

What is Anxiety?

Occasional anxiety is a part of life and a natural reaction to stress. It is a feeling of worry, fear, or unease and can cause physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, or a rapid heartbeat. We may feel anxious when facing challenging or unexpected situations, such as managing a conflict at work or preparing to take a test. Anxiety isn’t all bad. In fact, anxiety causes a rush of adrenaline, which increases our energy levels and helps us focus.

Anxiety Disorders

If you’re experiencing persistent and/or extreme levels of anxiety, you may have an anxiety disorder. As I mentioned above, anxiety is a normal reaction that arises in response to stressful situations and fades when the situation ends. Persistent and/or extreme anxiety is more disruptive to our lives. 

For example, I am someone who struggles with social anxiety disorder, which means I experience extreme fear when faced with social interactions. Without coping mechanisms and therapy to mitigate these struggles, my anxiety would impact my well-being, preventing me from spending time socializing. My anxiety around social situations doesn’t go away and gets worse without therapeutic interventions and, therefore, is classified as a disorder. 

Anxiety disorders are clinical mental health conditions where your anxiety does not come and go according to everyday stressors. Instead, the anxiety sticks around gets worse over time, and interferes with your life. Struggling with an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean you’re alone. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US, and over 40 million adults are affected. 

There are various types of anxiety disorders, each with different traits. Below is a list of some of the most common disorders: 

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People who struggle with GAD experience excessive and ongoing worries on more days than not for at least 6 months.  

  • Phobias: Phobias are characterized by the intense and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that poses little to no actual danger. Common phobias may include flying, crowded spaces, or social situations (social phobia). 

  • Panic disorder: People with this disorder experience panic attacks, which come on suddenly and cause periods of intense fear even when there’s no threat. 

Common Anxiety Symptoms
  • Restlessness 

  • Nausea or stomach pain

  • Racing heart rate 

  • Irritability 

  • Difficult concentrating

  • Sweating 

  • Trembling or shaking 

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded 

  • Trouble making decisions 

  • Having a hard time falling or staying asleep

  • A sense of dread or impending danger 

Anxiety and Lack of Control

Anxiety is a natural reaction to life’s stressors and helps us properly respond to situations. For example, anxiety’s adrenaline rush can help us perform better on tests or focus during work presentations. Also, when we are anticipating an anxiety-provoking situation, there are ways we can prepare ourselves. We can study for a test or make notecards for the work presentation. 

But sometimes, life throws us situations that we weren’t expecting and are beyond our control, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or an accident. In psychology, control can be defined as our ability to cause an impact on ourselves, our circumstances, or our environment. A sense of control feels stabilizing and can regulate our emotions, thoughts, or actions. In contrast, when we are faced with circumstances outside of our control, we can feel emotionally overwhelmed, unable to make decisions, or filled with worries. 

Examples of Circumstances Out of Your Control
  • Chronic illness 

  • Being in a one-sided relationship

  • The death of a loved one 

  • Unstable job market 

  • Natural disasters 

  • Accidents 

Evaluating What You Can Control

When we are faced with any of the above situations, anxiety levels can rise, and it can be difficult to know how to cope. One step in beginning to manage the anxiety is to reevaluate what we can control rather than focusing on what is out of our control.  

No matter the situation, we are in control of how we respond. Here are two examples of how to control our response: 

  • You can control how you take care of yourself. Caring for yourself could mean many different things. It might mean getting enough sleep, eating regularly throughout the day, drinking water, taking a break from stressful circumstances to be alone, or simply going for a drive to listen to your favorite music. 

  • You can control how you tend to the difficult emotions. Managing large, challenging emotions may not initially strike you as empowering, but showing yourself you can ride big emotional waves can build confidence. One way of managing emotions is by simply naming what you are feeling (I am feeling anxious) and then finding ways to sit with the experience (taking deep breaths or calling a friend to talk). 

Anxiety Reducing Strategies

Redirecting our attention from what’s out of our control to what’s within our control is a way to feel less unsafe and more empowered when facing circumstances outside our control. However, that doesn’t necessarily take away the anxiety symptoms that these situations cause. There are strategies you can try that have been proven to reduce anxiety levels. 

Here’s a list of some effective coping strategies: 

  • 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise: Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds. Deep, rhythmic breathing is known to lower stress levels and promote relaxation. 

  • 3-3-3 Rule. Anxiety can take you out of the present moment. The 3-3-3 rule can help you ground yourself, thereby reducing overwhelming feelings. You will name three things you can see, three things you can hear, and then move three parts of your body. 

  • Movement. Anxiety causes a physical reaction in your body. Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis can help balance your body’s stress response and leave you feeling calmer. 

  • Get outside. Being in nature has been proven to balance cortisol levels, leaving you more emotionally regulated. Even spending 10-20 minutes outdoors each day can be enough to see benefits. 

Therapy for Anxiety

If you are experiencing anxiety on a regular basis and the symptoms are interfering with your life, consider reaching out for support. By talking with a therapist, you can have individualized support specifically tailored to your challenges. In therapy, you may learn how to relate differently to your anxious thoughts, uncover the underlying cause, or explore more in-depth ways to cope.

Find an anxiety therapist in Seattle

Thrive for the People has a team of therapists who treat anxiety disorders. On their website, you can schedule a free consultation call with a team member to see if they’d be a good fit for your needs.