JOHN TOLLER – “DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN FUTURE”

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In my last piece (http://www.thegowfers.com/focus-on-the-positive-it-isnt-denial/) I wrote about dealing with the present, finding ways to protect and maintain our own well-being – not just for our sake, but so that we’re also better equipped to support others. It’s three weeks since I wrote that and while the figures suggest the curve might finally be flattening, there’s no telling yet how long we’ll be in lockdown, still less how long it will be before things begin to get back to anything like what used to be ‘normal’.

We have to acknowledge some of the challenges this uncertain future presents. Focusing on positives does not mean denying reality, and from a mental health perspective, it’s better to be open and honest about these things – unless we acknowledge them, we’ll struggle to find ways to manage the stress and anxiety they might cause.

And we’re thinking about things that naturally will cause stress and anxiety. Many businesses are struggling, and it could take a very long time before we see the full impact. Efforts to help businesses and employees will come at a cost for public finance. Talk is of an economic downturn on a similar level to the Great Depression 90 years ago – even if it’s not that bad, very few people will not be affected negatively in some way, but none of us yet can say how that is going to play out.

Jobs may under threat. We might be looking at our savings wondering how secure they are, and how long they’ll last if we need them. Plans we had for weddings, holidays, for working on our homes, for doing things with and for our families, they’re all up in the air, whether due to the financial situation or just not knowing how long this is all going to go on. We might feel the strain of a relationship – whether because we’re apart or cooped up together – and wonder if it can survive. And that’s all alongside concerns for family members who may be particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus.

We might also look at our unknown future and compare it with someone else, and either resent the fact they seem to have it so easy, or feel guilty that they’ve got it so much worse and yet we’re still anxious. It’s true that others can give us perspective – but just because someone is in a worse situation doesn’t mean that our challenges are not real, we still need to acknowledge them and, where possible, address them. But how do we do that? When we’re dealing with unknowns, things that by their nature we can’t control, how do we cope?

For me, faith is the biggest thing that keeps me going in uncertainty, but whether or not you have faith there are some other things you can do to help. There will be other ideas I’ve not covered here, and I’m not going to pretend any of it is easy, but hopefully these few thoughts will be of some use.

Control
The stress and anxiety of an unknown future comes not only from the fact that we don’t know what is going to happen, but also the fact that we can’t control it. You might be familiar with the poem ‘Invictus’ (the inspiration for the Invictus Games’): ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ The trouble is, times like this are a reminder that is not necessarily the case. Yes, we have some control over how we respond to things – but as someone who’s struggled with depression and anxiety for years, I can tell you that is not always true either!

So how do we deal with the feeling of powerlessness? A good starting point is to admit that you can’t control everything. Give yourself permission to accept your limitations. This can help with anxiety – we accept that we can’t know what will happen, that we can’t control it, and so we let it be until we actually know what it is we’re having to deal with.

At the same time, there are things we can focus on and have some level of control over, which can also help settle anxieties. Perhaps we can do things so that we’re better prepared for whatever comes: saving money if we’re in a position to do so; caring for our mental health so that we’re more emotionally resilient. But there’s also the daily things – sticking to routines, for example – small things that help today and can ease the daily battle with anxiety about tomorrow.

Priorities
Another thing that might be helpful is to look at our priorities. There are different ‘unknowns’ for each of us, different things that we might consider threatened – family, jobs, holidays, and so on. Try to identify which are the most important for you, and remember that it’s not necessarily the same for everyone. If we can identify which things really matter to us, it can help us to hold lightly to others and so reduce the number of things that will cause us anxiety.

Contentment
In the last piece I wrote about thankfulness – I guess this is similar. When we’re dealing with an unknown future, we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the past and the present, because they can help us get perspective. Find things that have happened that you are grateful for – ideally, do it at the end of every day so that can go to bed with a positive mindset. Also seek enjoyment in little things – as you go through the day, actively identify the positives around you and take pleasure from them, however small. Contentment in the present is a fantastic resource to keep us strong when we’re dealing with an unknown future.

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