'I'm a clinical psychologist. Here's what to do when life feels out of control.'

Right now, a lot of us are going through significant hurdles. 

These challenges aren't your everyday dramas. Instead, the stakes feel far higher. It's the big heartbreaks. The losses. A health-related woe. Perhaps it's the pending reality of losing someone you love

When life throws us these curveballs, oftentimes it's an 'unfixable' challenge. There's very little we can do as individuals to make the situation go away or be quickly solved.

There's a level of fear and uncertainty that comes with that lack of control, says clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad.

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"A big part of my job is speaking to people who are going through really tough times. The rates of stress right now are quite high, and we are seeing a rise across the board in general," she tells Mamamia

The issue is that many of us don't have the strategies to cope with life when it feels very out of our control."

Dr Nejad is a clinical psychologist and the Founder of Skills for Life and Co-Founder of Contain Your Brain, and has over two decades worth of experience in this field. 

In her time, she has noticed there are certain people who tend to struggle more than others when they're faced with a challenge they can't fix. Part of it also comes down to our upbringings too.


"We're influenced by so many things in our lives. So it's not just personality types. But people who tend to be more perfectionistic have a hard time when things feel uncertain. We also learn a lot from how our families deal with things and we can adopt those different coping styles."

Often, it's a threefold-level of overwhelm. 

We struggle to cope with one, the feelings of distress, two, the distress related to the challenge itself, and three, the distress related to the fact we don't have the power to solve it. 

To help, Dr Nejad has shared with Mamamia some of the coping strategies she has her clients use. And from her experience, they can be real lifesavers. 

Don't rush into 'fix it' mode.

"We tend to be 'fix it' people naturally," says Dr Nejad. 

"We see a challenge and our immediate response is to go into problem-solving mode, desperate to amend the situation quickly. We're always trying to find solutions or alter situations. But sometimes that just isn't achievable."

Let's say a problem has no solution. It's just a really sh*tty circumstance, which we have little control over. For many people, it's scenarios like these that leave them vulnerable because they haven't been taught the tools to deal with that.

So although problem-solving in general is a really good attribute, sometimes the healthiest approach in curveball situations is to take a step back, breathe and acknowledge the overwhelm.

Acceptance can be healing. 

Acceptance can be the hardest thing to practice, but one of the best things for one's mental health.


It sounds easy right? Accepting the reality of a situation or circumstance. From Dr Nejad's perspective though, she finds a lot of her clients struggle with this stage the most.

One of the best strategies for coping is accepting what is in your control and what is out of your control.

"Acceptance is about acknowledging: 'This is my reality, this is the way it is, and I know that I can't change it or I don't have control or power over this'," she explains.

"This can release you from the struggle and suffering. You still have the pain and distress of the challenge or loss, but you are not piling on more angst on top of it - more judgment, fear, anxiety, anger, frustration."

It's okay to worry - just put a timer on it.

Another handy tip from Dr Nejad - if you're finding yourself ruminating and worrying constantly, that can really affect your mental health. 

Worry can be a common feeling, and it can't be ignored altogether. But a way to make it less intense is to create a boundary for your worries. Set aside time during the day, often 15 to 30 minutes, where you can sit with your thoughts and worry as much as you want on the said situation. Then once the timer is up, step away from where you were sitting and go and distract yourself with something new. 

The 'one day at a time' approach can be handy. 

People who have been through quite intense traumas are often asked how they managed to cope. Their answers are often quite similar - and very telling.

"A lot of people say 'I just took one hour at a time' or 'I just took one day at a time'. It's about not putting too much pressure on yourself - starting with small goals and not looking too far ahead. Because that can be really overwhelming and scary," says Dr Nejad.


Remember to focus on the facts.

One of the best things you can do in difficult times is to acknowledge the facts, and not focus on the judgements.

For example - say you have split from a long-term relationship. It's one of the most emotionally-fraught experiences when you're in the depths of a breakup. 

The facts of the situation would be: I am now single, we have split, and this is a really devastating circumstance. But when judgements like 'I am unloveable', 'I'll never find love', and 'I'll never be happy again' start to enter the mind - tell those thoughts to take a hike.

"It's reasonable to have these judgement statements float around, but giving them oxygen rarely helps. Sometimes we focus too much on our judgements or interpretations rather than the actual facts," says Dr Nejad.

"Ask yourself: what actually happened? Is there anything you can do to change it? What is in your control and what is not in your control? What resources are out there to help you?"

At the same time, validate your feelings.

Everyone needs a bit of good ol' self love and kindness in their life.

"Whatever your feelings or thoughts are about the challenge, it's important to validate yourself."

In doing this, you're actually less likely to get stuck in the ickiness of the hurt and resentment, Dr Nejad notes.

Mindfulness - now is the time to try it if you haven't. 

It might feel a bit buzzwordy right now, but mindfulness is seen among many experts as one of the best things you can do for your wellbeing. This strategy also ties in really well with the other ones mentioned above too, says Dr Nejad.

"Staying in the present and focusing on the things around you, rather than this hairy issue, can be great. 


Focus on what you're smelling, seeing, touching and tasting, even listening to. Do that for a couple of minutes in a quiet space, maybe somewhere outside. It's simple but it works wonders, especially when you're wanting to focus less on what's really stressing you out in your life."

Don't shy away from negative feelings.

Distress is sadly a fact of life. We all go through things that are painful - and although that doesn't mean we should have to, or that it's okay, it is a universal experience.

"We tend to phrase emotions as good versus bad, but all of our emotions serve a useful function. We're all after constant comfort, but that comes at a cost," Dr Nejad tells Mamamia. 

Ultimately, there are many ways to dealing with something. And you don't always have to have answers. 

Sometimes it's just about accepting what your current limitations are. So for those who are going through a big, thorny dilemma right now - you're certainly not alone. And as the experts say: it takes a lot of courage for people to admit when they're not doing okay, and there's a lot of strength in that. 

Dr. Lillian Nejad is a clinical psychologist and the Founder of Skills for Life and Co-Founder of Contain Your Brain.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty.

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