When I was growing up in the UK, there was a long-running advertising campaign tagline that caught the popular imagination: “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis,” an insurance company called Commercial Union assured us. I don’t know how good it was at selling their insurance policies, but I remember people often paraphrasing the slogan in conversation. (“Dropped your ice-cream on the ground, darling? Don’t make a drama out of a crisis!”)

I was reminded of the phrase on a recent visit to my native London, a city hit by multiple big crresilience-control-anxiety-worryises in the space of a few short weeks earlier this summer. They included several terror attacks, after which some news media in other countries described London as being “under siege” – but that’s not really how it felt on the ground. People were angry, no question about it. But the attacks also pushed Londoners’ don’t-make-a-drama buttons. One particular man’s actions captured the mood well: calmly defiant, he returned to pay the restaurant bill he’d not had time to pay when being evacuated the previous night. Meanwhile, in the wake of a terrifying fire in a high-rise building, there were many stories of practical neighborly assistance and persistence. Desperate to help, onlookers marshaled a battalion of spare shoes for the barefoot survivors. One 16-year old resident who narrowly escaped the fire sat her final chemistry exam the next day, going to school in the same clothes in which she fled the building. (Interviewed afterward, she said she thought she did okay in the circumstances.)

What these actions have in common is something that psychotherapists have long known to be helpful in boosting people’s resilience to difficult situations – namely, they involve people focusing on what they can control, even when there’s a huge amount that they can’t. Doing this has been shown to reduce anxiety, making it easier to think clearly and move forward – and that’s true even when all that people can control is their own personal response to the situation: what they choose to do or feel about it. (Pay the bill. Take the moral high ground. Donate shoes. Etcetera.)

And what works in the face of real trauma can also help us in the face of our everyday upsets and uncertainties, the kind that don’t make the news but that might still be keeping us awake at night – dealing with a volatile colleague or family member, feeling fearful about whether our job is safe or whether a decision will go our way. So next time you’re feeling stressed about something, try one of these questions to restore your sense of control amid the chaos:

  • “Setting aside the things I don’t know about this situation, what are the things I do know for sure? What can I do based on that?”
  • “What feels familiar to me in this, given my past experience? And what does that tell me I could do now?”
  • “What kind of attitude do I want to have about this situation? Given that, what choices do I want to make?
  • “What can I learn from this? What will I do differently as a result?” 

(Oh, and I have a feeling that schoolgirl is destined for great things, don’t you?)

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