Predictability & control

The chaotic world is trying to get in again. I feel it in the way I want to research things – like how to create vaccines, or running for public office, or how much a billion dollars is really worth. I’ve run out of “free reads” for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and The Economist, which is probably a blessing-in-disguise for my mental health.

I’ve never felt the impact of the outside world so much as now, ironically enough, when I’m home and removed from it.

The outside world feels like crying when I’m making dinner. It feels like the inability to concentrate when reading a novel. It feels like ineffectually cleaning the oven. It feels like terror-Lysoling every scrap of groceries. It makes me feel many things: anger, grief, frustration. Stress to the nth degree, even though the most strenuous things I’ve done are 1. write this blog post and 2. watch Netflix.

I know I’m not alone. Here we all are: figuring out work from home with kids underfoot, who are also figuring out how to learn from home. Trying to budget for God Knows How Long. Listening to politicians. Listening to medical experts. Noticing there’s a discrepancy between what the politicians are saying and what the experts are saying.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to say: It’s really fucking stressful.

Humans do not do well with chronic stress. It literally affects our health. And we’re already facing a health crisis. So, what the hell do we do? I’m no expert, but I ran across a few things that have helped me, and I’m sharing it here so that maybe it helps someone else stay sane in this clusterfuck situation.

I came across a great book called On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger – a reporter who worked at Amazon, Convergys, and McDonalds all in the interest of finding out why low-wage work drives people insane.

(Side note: while I highly recommend this book, I also highly recommend that you read it after the current situation is over. I was in a rage for the first few days of my isolation because my sense of impotence was heightened by 300%.)

In the McDonald’s section, she breaks down an experiment done on rats which discovered that if you remove predictability and control, you create “body- and mind- wrecking” stress:

Put Rat A in a box with an electrified floor and give her unpredictable shocks: she’ll develop the same stress-related symptoms [terrible stomach ulcers] Selye observed in the rats he had to chase around the lab with a broom.

Now put Rat B in the same situation, except play a beep ten seconds before you shock her: she’ll end up with ulcers, too, but far fewer of them. Rat B can’t avoid the shock, but she at least can relax until she hears the dreaded beep. That predictability helps her deal with the stress better.

Now give Rat C the same set up as Rat B – box, shocks, beeps – but add a button she can push after hearing the warning beep that will cancel the shock: she’ll end up with dramatically fewer ulcers than either of the other two. Even that little bit of control Rat C has helps her deal with the stress much, much better than either of the others.” ~Emily Gruendelsberger, On the Clock.

Extrapolating from those scenarios – it feels, to me, like I’ve been placed squarely in Rat A’s box. I don’t know what the presidential updates will upend – are we sheltering in place or having a giant Easter egg hunt? Where are the shocks (Covid-19) coming from? Who knows? There’s no consistent testing. I might be able to go to the grocery store and purchase flour or purchase a disease that’ll throw me in the middle of an already-packed hospital waiting room/ward. And all of this is beyond both my ability to predict or control.

However, while I might not be able to mitigate the stress and pressure coming from outside, there are still predictable, controllable pieces I can manage. I had to think these out for myself, which took some time. Your list of things you can control and predict will be different.

  • I can control and predict my schedule. I work from home. I can get up at the same time every day. I can shower and get dressed and have breakfast and be at my desk at specific times.
  • I can control and predict my limited space. I’ve organized my desk/office space. I’ve integrated a “reading nook.” I suspect the control impulse is why everyone is cleaning everything. **Important note: I can also allow my family to control their spaces and respect that – when we’re all fighting for our own little corner of the world, be sure to give people whatever space you can. Turf wars over a corner of the house only breed more irritation. Knowing that your space will be there, just as you left it, also gives a sense of predictability.
  • I can control and predict what I do. Right now, I have to limit my time online. You know what it looks like: this news article that breaking news this expert says that expert says the death count is this high but look at the survival numbers. I acknowledge there is chaos happening, but I can’t allow myself to wallow in it. I read and watch enough to know the big shifts. But ‘controlling what you do’ is also not about avoiding the negative – it’s trying to accomplish something positive. For example, game night with the family, reading, writing (not necessarily the Great American Novel, though if you’re feeling it….), cleaning, cooking, going for a walk, throwing a ball around. I’m not crafty but I know people making medical masks, puppets, growing plants, and painting.     

You know how kids work better with a schedule (set bed time, play time, craft time, etc.)? You are now that kid. Set up your schedule (and you can freakin’ sleep in if you want – just get up at 1:00pm consistently if that’s your jam).  

Look, I’m pretty sure I’m still gonna get ulcers. But doing these things has helped calm me the fuck down. If you have other things that help you gain predictability and control, please let me know. I’m looking for any tips and tricks for peace of mind – and I’m sure you are too.




4 responses to “Predictability & control”

  1. footloosedon Avatar

    Hi Jenny,

    After reading your excellent piece I noticed you didn’t mention meditation as a something you do to help you cope with the undeniable uncertainties of this “May You Live In Interesting Times” world. The ego mind loves to catastrophize and mindfulness meditation can help to alleviate the worst of the imagining of what might happen.

    1. jenny maloney Avatar

      Fantastic point! Meditation is INCREDIBLY useful and in the chaos I have, personally, been neglecting the practice. Thank you for bringing it up!!

      I also forgot to mention purposeful exercise and movement. I’ve set timers to remind me to get up and move — I try to go for walks around the block and get some fresh air — all the windows in my house are open right now too, so things don’t feel so stuffy. (Hopefully people are breathing six feet away 😉)

      Sent from my iPhone


  2. Eilene Lyon Avatar

    Excellent post, Jenny. I love the excerpt you cited. I feel for people such as yourself whose life has been upended. It has to be very stressful. I don’t have children and normally spend most of my time at home, so life is fairly routine for me at the moment. That could certainly change after an unfortunate trip to the grocery store, but I do try hard to be careful.

    If you can, take a long walk each day. Good for body and soul, and makes you feel much less like a rat in a cage.

  3. grumpytyke Avatar

    Music – that’s my sanity saver, and avoiding pretty much all ‘social media’ apart from blogging. On the other hand, thank heavens for the technology: I can keep in touch with friends around the world (most made through blogging); we had our first writers’ club meeting via video chat on Messenger on Saturday (grumpytyke posted about this so ‘grumping’ about something also helps 😂).
    I listen to what our Prime Minister says (and the daily Ministerial Press conference) but ignore most of the Press which seeks sensation rather than truth. Many of the questions are idiotic or they simply weren’t listening (I say this as a former journalist).
    Petronela and I have been ‘ordered’ to confine ourselves to the flat for for 12 weeks from yesterday due to our medical conditions but we can cease to maintain 6.1/2 feet between us in about a week; that’s been the hardest thing.
    Stay safe x

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