Anxious?God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr*
And therein lies the root of much of our stress. When we accept that there are few things we have control over, we might be able relax and just be with what is. A major source of anxiety and depression is the feeling of a loss of control. Those who are depressed surrender to the malaise. Anxious people, worry a lot. It’s our attempt to control more than we are able to that elevates our stress hormones and affects our ability to sleep well.
So, just what do we control? According to most experts, very little. The only things we have full control over are ourselves. Anything external to us, our environment, other people, the weather, and pretty much anything in the world is beyond our control.
Just to be clear, we control: our actions; what we think; what we say; our immediate environment; what our inputs are (what we see, hear, read etc.); who are friends are; our level of self care; how we spend our time; and our legacy. That’s not much to look after, considering the hundreds of things that are out of our hands in a day. As the poem by the preacher Reinhold Niebuhr states, it takes grace and forgiveness to accept what we can’t change and wisdom to know what we can. Everything else leads to malaise or stress.
You might ask, if leading a less stressful life is that simple, why don’t more people do it? There are a lot of answers to this question; most can be reduced to human nature. As a coach I work with clients who suffer from stress, anxiety, impulse control issues, depression, and lack of discipline or motivation. The trouble is, it’s much easier to worry, blame others, be irresponsible, compare one’s self to others, be passive, or a control freak than it is to take control of ourselves and our mind.
If you find that you fit neatly into the category of worrying about things outside your control you have plenty of company. The best thing you can do is to bring some awareness to your worries. Write down everything you are worried about using two columns: “Things I can change” and “Things I can’t change”. Notice how long the “Can’t Change” list is and how short the “Can Change” list is.
But it’s not like we are simply going to stop worrying about things just because we conceptually know they’re out of our control. This is where the hard but rewarding work comes in. The good news is that breathing, meditation, relaxation, and yoga, all help. Training your mind to control your thoughts is essential to being able to banish worries, blame, unflattering comparisons, negative thinking, and fears. Fears are often the root of anxiety and anger so it will take introspection and perhaps some professional to root them out.
* The quote by Reinhold Niebuhr is most commonly known as the Serenity Prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step Programs. This is a shortened version of the original prayer penned by Neibuhr in a sermon to troops in 1943.
Toronto-based psychotherapist and coach, specializing in helping people with mood disorders, anxiety and depression