The inarguable truth of life is that there are only three ways that it can impact on you, and that however inclined to control freakery you might or might not be, one of them is completely beyond your control.
There are those things in life that happen as a direct result of your own decisions and actions: if you put your hand into a fire, it will hurt.
There are those things in life that you can influence: you can reduce your driving speed to reduce the chances of having an accident, but it won’t stop some other idiot from crashing into you.
And there are those things in life over which you have zero control or tangible influence – like the national economy.
But it’s also an inarguable truth of life that even though your logical mind recognises and understands that complete control is beyond your grasp, that knowledge doesn’t stop you trying.
Almost everything about how we deal with life’s unpredictability comes down to a principle called the Locus of Control.
It’s a concept established in the 1950s by American psychologist Julian Rotter and essentially argues that a people have either an internal or external locus (the Latin for ‘place’ but conceptualised in this case as a belief) about their level of control over life.
Those with an internal locus believe their own decisions and actions always determine outcomes, whilst those with an external locus believe that events are the work of fate, or the decisions and actions of others.
Imagined as a spectrum, most people will incline to one locus or the other, but there is crossover for most of us at some point on that spectrum where we accept something was either avoidable, unavoidable, or able to be influenced – which takes us back to the three ways we are impacted by life that I described earlier.
How we deal with life’s laundry on an emotional level is critical when it comes to preserving our individual mental wellbeing.
We are now on the precipice of the worst mental health crisis we could possibly imagine. It was already a huge issue before the pandemic, but the isolation of lockdown and the economic impact of covid, Brexit and the ongoing war in the East have now fuelled it to a gargantuan level.
At the same time, inflation has reached its highest level since the 1982. To put that into perspective, that was the year that we were introduced to Diet Coke, and the world’s coolest computer was the Commodore 64.
Back then the level of inflation in the UK was impacted by two things – an oil supply crisis and a war – and this toxic economic maelstrom resulted in a cost-of-living crisis.
Now as familiar as this may be starting to sound, there is also a distinct difference between now and then: in 1982 inflation was on its way down from an all-time average high in 1980 of 13.5%, while today it is still climbing (9.4% as I type but forecast to go to 11% before the year is out).
This little piece of condensed history is important, because back in the early Eighties there was also a spike in demand for mental health services resulting from the cost-of-living crisis that, much like today, fuelled depression, anxiety, and stress.
We know from the stream of information we get in our inboxes that people are deeply concerned about the affordability of utilities, food, and other staples, and we also know that cases of depression, anxiety, and stress (among myriad other mental health issues) are rising fast.
The problem is that the nature of the circumstances that we fear and over which we have no control is often on a grand and epic scale that it is so completely overwhelming it triggers emotional panic and a paralysis of rational thought.
It’s the economy spiralling out of control, the tidal wave racing towards the shore, or the terrorist hijacking an airplane and flying it into a skyscraper.
As individuals, and viewed as a whole, we can do absolutely nothing on our own to avert those events. But that whole is made up of moments where we can influence or change the personal consequences for us if the worst happens.
We started with the cost-of-living crisis, and because it’s super relevant right now, let’s use that to illustrate what I mean.
The current economic slide is fuelled by a lot of things, but the most significant, in no particular order, are Brexit, lockdown, the war in Ukraine and a general shortage of oil and gas.
Together these have seen fuel inflation and food inflation rise. In turn, wage growth has all but halted. Everything costs more and we have either the same or a lower amount of money in our pockets to buy it.
Despite the fact that no single individual (apart, perhaps, from Vladimir Putin) could have prevented any of the contributing factors from happening, millions of people with an internal locus of control are devoting their energy to trying to take command of something that’s beyond them.
This impacts directly on mental health because, much like a rat caught in a trap, they believe their only means of ‘escape’ is to solve the bigger problem – and when they can’t, they become anxious and depressed, and their mental health starts to fall in on itself.
What we all need to do is stop trying to control the uncontrollable and focus instead on the elements we can either change or influence to alter their effect on us.
I often like to say that you can’t pour from an empty cup. What I mean by that is that it’s impossible to support yourself or others if you’re running on empty emotionally and mentally.
By taking care of your own wellbeing, you give yourself the emotional resources you need to take positive action – or, if it makes more sense – to stop fighting and choose a different and less exhausting path to progress.
In an ideal world, we make good decisions much earlier that insulate us from the worst of things further down the line: we save regularly and avoid debt that might be the difference between surviving financially or not.
We shop and eat smarter, we cut out unnecessary spending and we sacrifice luxuries and non-essentials. We walk more and drive less. Maybe we work another part time job locally to boost income.
We find really good ways to take extra care of our ourselves in a time of increasing anxiety and go inwards more to find creative ways to regulate ourselves rather than focusing endlessly with all the many things that are horribly wrong with the world.
Practising self-care doesn’t always feel rewarding in the moment. Choosing not to do something in order to protect your psychological wellbeing may well result in what we perceive as negative emotions – that old fear of missing out when we decide to give a party a miss, for example.
But when we get into the habit of practising self-care, life becomes more rewarding and enjoyable overall, and so your future self will thank you for having had the courage to put your wellbeing first now.
None of this means all the problems or the anxiety goes away and none of what I’m saying here is intended to minimise the life-or-death decisions about heating and eating that we know the most vulnerable in society face.
We can only hope that the state benefit mechanisms that are there to protect them do what they’re supposed to do, and that those among us who are fortunate enough to be in a position to help do their bit.
As for the rest of us? Life will probably still be hard and uncomfortable, but by focusing on what is possible within our locus of control it won’t be futile. And when all is said and done, it is hope that often stands between us and the abyss.