I love plans. Long term, five and ten-year, plans are my favorite because I feel such a sense of control when I have them. I’m wired to love finding answers (which is why I love research) and knowing how things work out (which is why I love spoilers). That’s why I freak out when life takes an unexpected turn. I don’t think I know anyone who thinks “something completely unexpected and weird is happening and I don’t know what to do. This is awesome!” Usually, our anxiety goes through the roof. Curve balls are unavoidable, but you can choose how you manage the hand you’ve been dealt.
The Illusion of Control
I once heard Tony Robbins say that people hate surprises. When something unexpected but good happens, we call it a surprise. When something unexpected but bad happens, we call it a problem. He’s right. We make plans and get out of bed every day assuming the status quo will continue. If we all woke up thinking “today, things might completely spin out of control,” most of us wouldn’t get out of bed.
The illusion of control allows us to function. Our brain is wired to rely on things in our life being predictable. When we can’t predict our life and environment with relative certainty, we become incredibly anxious because our brain automatically goes into fight or flight. Our brain has to keep us alive and it will put all systems on high alert to do so. Research shows that people who are depressed have a very accurate read of how unpredictable and bad things really are. People who aren’t depressed, on the other hand, over estimate how stable things are. This illusion really does allow us to function, but it’s why anxiety shoots through the roof when the inevitable ultimately happens.
That Crazy Stupid Moment (i.e., The Anxiety Explosion)
We’ve all had that moment. The call, text, e-mail, conversation, fight, test result…That moment when you realize that things will be different from now on and that keeping the status quo isn’t even an option. All of a sudden, whatever you had going on before seems great because all you want is to go back to a regular moment when you didn’t feel like your head was spinning.
In this new status quo, we go from thinking about the next five to ten years to thinking about how to get through a day, week, or month. We don’t have many answers and we really want someone to tell us what to do. Our brains aren’t wired to not have answers. Not knowing how things will work out is automatically processed as a threat to survival. Fight or flight is activated and stays on as long as we feel uncertain. Being on high alert all of the time for a while strains every system in your body. That’s why people tend to get sick during rough periods in their lives.
Since we are wired to need answers, we tend to respond to these situations by looking for information and a plan. If we can’t come up with them on our own, we rely on others to guide us until we can get it together. We fight against “I don’t know” because we can’t wrap our head around that. Ironically, it’s when we lean into the change and ambiguity that we tend to think and feel better.
Navigating the Unexpected (i.e., Containing the Anxiety Explosion)
I got a wilderness survival guide as an engagement present. Honest to God, I did. No, it wasn’t on the registry. The person who gave it to me thought it was funny. As I read through it, I hoped that I would never be in a situation in which I would have to save myself or my spouse from a shark or swarm of killer bees. I’m going to be up a creek if any of this stuff ever happens because I forgot almost everything I read and I have no idea where the book is. However, the one thing I remember is how to survive if you fall into quicksand. I have used these instructions to help myself and others deal with the unexpected ever since.
Our natural instinct when we fall into quicksand is to fight the pull and try to get ourselves out. However, the more we move, the quicker we sink. The flailing movements actually exacerbate the pull into the pit. In order to survive, you’re supposed to stop. Completely stop. This will cause you to float to the top. You’re then supposed to slowly shimmy across to a safe space and pull yourself to solid ground.
Hopefully, none of us will actually need to contend with quicksand. However, the concept is fascinating and ridiculously accurate. When we accept the change and stop fighting it, we have a better chance of surviving. If we accept that, right now, the answer is “I don’t know,” we can respond to what is actually happening. Accepting the change gives our brain an answer:
What is it? It’s this new thing. What do we do about it? We figure it out.
Once you accept this new normal, you can proceed to figuring out next steps. I’m not saying you’ll stop being sad, angry, or disappointed. I’m also not saying the worry will go away. It’s normal to worry when you’re not sure how things will work out. I’m saying that you’ll feel less desperate and more clear headed. This will put you in a position to make better decisions and function. In some cases, you may actually realize you are better off than you were before.
Three Key Strategies for Dealing with the Unexpected
When life throws you a curve ball, your natural inclination will be to do a lot. This way you can feel like you’re getting something tangible done. All of this action will give you an illusion of control. Most of the time though, you will wind up walking in circles. You will spend lots of time, energy, and money on plans and products that don’t actually work. Years later you’ll look back and go “what was I thinking?!” You were thinking that the commercial or recommendation was right and this would give you an answer and relief. Advertisers count on this.
When the unexpected happens, I want you to think of surviving in quicksand: stop and float. These three survival strategies will help you use your mental and emotional energy in the best way possible.
1. Deal with right now. Focus on short term strategies. Short term could be a week or month. Gather information and recommendations that will help you make a decision and act now. Don’t try to anticipate every possible outcome. You’ll drive yourself up a wall. There’s no way you can think of every possible future scenario. You can only make decisions based on what you know now.
2. Don’t try to solve all of it right away. When the unexpected happens, we usually ask “what am I going to do?” We want a final answer. Those are hard to come by and even harder to think up on our own. Break down the challenge into smaller steps. For example, if you’ve just been diagnosed with an illness, break down “getting better” into smaller, more manageable tasks such as getting your team of specialists together and clarifying your options. Once you’ve stabilized an area, move on to the next one.
3. Change your approach as needed. Be willing to adjust based on how things are going and the feedback you’re getting. You may even need to completely throw out Plan A and come up with a whole new plan. It’s ok to say that failure isn’t an option. However, staying flexible and changing course as needed are essential. Remember the quicksand instructions. Fighting the pull only speeds up how quickly you drown.
It would be great if only good unexpected stuff happened, but we know that’s just not in the cards for most of us. When the unexpected happens and you feel like you can’t see straight, stop for a moment, breathe, and let yourself float to safer territory where you can come up with your next step.
I know you can do this.
Talk to you soon,
Dr. Ronit Levy