Letting go of control

By Dr Camilla Rosan

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” ~John Allen Paulos

Trying to have a baby is a time of major uncertainty. You may have never have thought or considered that there might be problems, or that it might be an experience that you would not be able to control. For many people this can be hardest part of their fertility journey – particularly if they are used to being in control and achieving their goals when they set their mind to it. This can be very uncomfortable for people and understandably lead to anxiety.

Annoyingly, the reality is that it is not possible to create a controllable, predictable life for yourself forever – as nothing stays the same forever. Life is not likely to ever pan out exactly how you planned it in your head – and in fact the only constant is that life will involve change, and try as you may to control the future, sometimes all you can do is trust that whatever happens, you can adapt and make the best of it.

This overwhelming and uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty can keep you up at night, it can get you thinking over and over how to neutralise it and how to protect yourself from anything that might go wrong. All this energy pre-occupying your mind and your body is exhausting.

Learning to cope with uncertainty and letting go of control is a skill – and the good news is that with practice it can be learnt. What you’re facing in your fertility journey might not be easy but what is certain is that it is ahead of you, and what you can control is how you respond to it, how you learn from it, and how it can motivate you to practice acceptance, and live in the moment – and that you can cope.

Here are some tips to help you learn to cope with uncertainty and let go of control:

  • Try to manage your expectations and relax your black and white thinking. When you form high (or low), very clear or specific expectations, you’re likely setting yourself up for disappointment. Reset your expectations to focus on the here and now – and try to find the shades of grey between the best and worst possible outcomes. If you expect the worst, you’ll probably feel too negative and closed-minded to notice and seize opportunities. If you expect the best, you’ll create a vision that’s hard to live up to. Instead of expecting the future to give you something specific, focus on what you’ll do to create what you want to experience – that is likely to be somewhere in between.
  • Stop and name thoughts and feelings before they spiral. For many people trying to have a baby, it isn’t the uncertainty that bothers them; it’s the strong, all-consuming thoughts and feelings that go alongside the loss of control. Usually these feelings center around fear and are partnered with circular repetitive thoughts such as “This cycle won’t work”, which leads to “How will I cope if it doesn’t work again?” Before you know it, you’ve somehow travelled all the way to “I will have a breakdown, not being able to work, my partner will leave me and I will be all alone.” This is called catastrophic thinking. Negative thoughts about the future lead to more negative feelings which can lead to more ‘fortune-telling’ about negative possibilities in the future and then more strong feelings. It is a vicious and ultimately unhelpful cycle. To try to stop this cycle, try to recognize the feeling—in this case, fear—and then remind yourself: “I can’t possibly predict the future, but I can help create it by fostering positive feelings about the possibilities.”
  • Focus on what you can control. Often, we overlook the little things we can do to make life easier while obsessing about the big things we can’t do. For example, my boyfriend and I are cramped in a small space with little storage. My clothes are in bags spaced throughout the room, like some kind of luggage booby trap. At times I’ve gotten really frustrated with the chaos, since I feel like I don’t know where anything is, and I’ve complained about wanting to move. Then suddenly, it dawned on me: moving now just isn’t an option, but I can make this living situation more bearable if I stop complaining and focus on a short-term solution. So I asked my boyfriend to help me organize the space and keep it that way, and now I feel a lot less scattered.
  • Believe in your resilience. When we are feeling negative it is easy to forget that we can handle difficult situations and in fact if the worst did happen we would likely be able to cope. Julie K. Norem proposed the idea of defensive pessimism—the idea that you should consider the worst case outcome so that you can plan how you’d handle it. This has actually been shown to help people manage anxiety and feel more in control. This is not the same as ruminating on ‘what if the worst happened?’ and imagining how you would not cope but instead thinking in real terms about how you would cope.
  • Practice active relaxation techniques. If you’re dealing with uncertainty and feeling out of control, you are probably holding on to stress in your body. Over time, that body stress will build up and affect back pain, headaches, blood pressure, muscle tension, cholesterol level, breathing rate, and every organ in your body. Try to practice muscle relaxation techniques to notice where you are holding this stress in your body and practice letting it go (see the module above with example active relaxation exercises). The more you do this, the more you will notice that there are certain areas of your body that become tense – and this increased awareness will help you to relax those areas before tension is allowed to be built up. Look out for unusual areas such as the jaw, forehead and bottom where lots of tension is stored but people are rarely aware of.
  • Practice mindfulness. There is a famous quote in Kung Fu Panda (the animated movie) when the sage Master Ooogway says to Kung Fu Panda when is wanting to give up on his Kung Fu career – “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift… that’s why they call it the present.” When your mind is obsessed about a past and future you can’t control, you’re too busy judging what has gone before and what hasn’t happened yet to fully experience what’s happening right now. Instead of noticing and appreciating this moment, you get trapped in a fear-driven thought cycle about the potential for discomfort down the line. Accepting that you cannot always control what is going to happen tomorrow and that that doesn’t have to be a bad thing means you can spend today doing other things that you love, like spending time with valued friends and family, listening to music, reading, gardening and eating good food. Practicing mindfulness and connecting with the present moment can help people develop a different relationship with the all-consuming circular thoughts – and make different choice so that they can do more of the activities they love. Grounding yourself in the present moment by connecting to your senses – what you can see, smell, hear, feel and taste is a really helpful way to start to introduce mindfulness into your life. Notice when you wind wonders back to past or future thoughts and come back to the sensory experience you are focusing on in this moment. Practicing mindfulness is not all about just deep breathing in silence for prolonged periods of time – it is about developing a skill to be in the present moment without judgement. See some of our practical mindfulness meditations for more information in how to integrate mindfulness into your daily life – even if it is a very busy one.