How to stop caring about things you can't control

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You may feel stressed about situations that are out of your control, such as the weather, how other people behave, or a delayed flight. Feeling stressed with these occurrences can be normal. However, if worrying impacts your everyday life negatively or causes you to perform compulsions to reduce stress, it may indicate an underlying issue, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalized anxiety disorder. 

You may want to learn how to stop worrying about what you can't control, but you may not be sure how to go about doing this. In this case, there are several methods of treatment or lifestyle changes that might benefit you, such as therapy, medication, or radical acceptance skills.

Want to stop worrying about things that are out of your control?

Recognizing what you can't control

There may be situations that you aren’t able to solve or change. For those who often approach problems from a solution-based lens, these situations might feel stressful or cause worry.

Learning to identify which situations are out of your control may be the first step to learning to accept them. You can train this identification process like a mental muscle, and over time, you should be able to spot these situations far more easily throughout your daily life.

Possible situations that are out of your control could include the following. 

The thoughts of others

As we can't read the thoughts in someone else’s head, you might not know what someone else thinks unless they communicate it. Additionally, people may lie or avoid divulging information. Trying to force someone else to communicate or believing you know what they believe might cause conflict or hurt.

Additionally, you may be unable to change someone else's mind or actions. If they are communicating an opinion you disagree with, it may cause further stress to attempt to lead them in a different direction or prove them wrong. If someone else chooses to act in an unhealthy way, it may be best to take control of your actions and set boundaries for yourself by leaving the situation or explaining what you will or won't accept. 

The past 

You may be able to control some parts of your future. However, what we experienced as a child or what occurred in the past cannot be changed. Although you may repair past hurts or mistakes, ultimately, the action itself has already occurred, and you can’t control it. Making decisions to do better in your future can be a healthy way to handle stress about the past. You can also use positive affirmations to help keep your self-esteem high and forgive yourself for mistakes in your past. 

What-if scenarios 

Although you may be able to control some aspects of your future, unforeseen circumstances are often a variable in most individuals' lives. We might face conflict, loss, accidents, or disappointments caused by other people or circumstances out of anyone's control. 

Instead of thinking about the worst-case scenario, focus on what you can control, such as your actions, outlook, and communication. Trying to guess what could occur in every situation in your life might cause more stress and could be a sign of OCD or generalized anxiety. 

How to find acceptance for what you cannot change 

Acceptance may effectively reduce fear, anxiety, or stress about what you cannot change in life. However, in the case of a mental health condition, such as OCD, further treatment with a mental health provider may be necessary for you to stop worrying and overcome anxious thoughts. 

Look inward

You may influence others through your actions. However, many experiences in life are unpredictable, and other people can be as well. Even if you find yourself being a positive example for others, you might lose sight of your actions and what you value. Being who you want to be may involve removing judgments about what is best or healthiest for others. For example, if you believe it is safest to stay away from the river on a hike, that doesn't necessarily mean another person agrees. They may enjoy dipping their toes in the water or throwing rocks. Both situations can exist simultaneously as you work to focus on your actions and allow others to face any consequences or joys from theirs. 

If you feel irritated or anxious about an outside situation, create strategies and ask questions that allow you to look inward. Why does it make you feel this way? Do you feel you are trying to defend or care for others through your watchful eye? These thoughts may signify that you believe it is your responsibility to care for others or fix problems that arise, which may be caused by a childhood pattern developed over time. 

Be aware of these judgments or beliefs and know that how you react to others is often something you can develop and change. Accept that other people may confront danger or consequences, but they also might confront joy or excitement from their actions. You are not necessarily at fault for either outcome. Each person is responsible for their own safety, well-being, and health. 

Change your perspective

Although you may not be able to change your feelings, a situation, or the actions of others, you might be able to work to change your thoughts, perspectives, and the meaning you attach to events, conclusions, expectations, and opinions. You might feel hurt, sadness, fear, anger, or other emotions due to expectations. Changing your expectations of how things "should be" can be the key to changing your perspective and letting go of negative thoughts. 

Track your feelings

Many individuals believe that thoughts are based on rationality and feelings are not. However, feeling emotions can be healthy. Studies show that suppressing your emotions can cause physical symptoms, illness, and mental unwellness. Often, thoughts occur before a feeling and can trigger a feeling. 

While you may not initially understand why you feel the way you do, tracking the feeling back to the originating thought may help you understand it. For example, if you are feeling sad after a long day at work, you might remember that you felt sad earlier in the day when a coworker made a rude remark. The feeling may have lingered because you decided not to deal with it earlier. Once you know why you are sad, you might feel better able to change it. 

However, thoughts, impressions, and conclusions may sometimes be inaccurate, illogical, or based on assumptions. In these cases, you might be experiencing a cognitive distortion. Learning which types of cognitive distortion you commonly experience can be beneficial in changing your actions or reactions to situations. 

While you may not change how you feel about a situation, you can often change how you act. As you start to choose healthier actions, your emotions may also improve. Optimism can be essential in reducing pessimism, fear, or giving too much basis to your cognitive distortions. Research shows that optimism can decrease healing time after surgery and improve physical and mental health overall. 

Practice radical acceptance 

Radical acceptance is a skill from dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) that involves accepting what you cannot change through a cognitive process. You can practice it in the following ways:

  1. Observe that you are fighting reality or trying to change a situation that may be unchangeable. 

  2. Remind yourself that you cannot change the present situation. (Ex: "I know this was in the past, I cannot change it now.”) 

  3. Note that there may be a cause for this occurrence, whether it was within your control or not. Try not to blame yourself or others. Note that it happened, whether intentionally or not. 

  4. Use positive self-talk, mindfulness, and self-care, and practice accepting the factors out of your control. 

  5. If you reject acceptance, note that mentally and return to practicing acceptance. 

  6. List all the behaviors or actions you would take if you accepted the situation. Imagine how that would look and how you would treat yourself and others. Then practice acting that way, even if you don't believe it. 

  7. Allow all the things you feel, including sadness, disappointment, grief, or fear, to happen freely. Feeling your emotions can be healthy. 

  8. Note that life can be worth living, even if you are afraid or feel distressed. 

  9. Try a pros and cons chart of accepting or challenging the situation if you continue to struggle. 

Talk to a counselor if you are unsure how to practice radical acceptance on your own. 

Keep a "worry box"

The "worry box" strategy may be beneficial in addressing ruminating thoughts about a situation you cannot control. First, clarify whether you have control over the issue you are worrying about. For example, if you have an assignment due tomorrow and feel anxious about it, you may have control over that situation, and avoiding it further could be unhealthy. 

On the other hand, if you are worried about what might occur on your flight the next week or whether your parents will be able to visit you for the holidays, these might be situations that are out of your control partially or entirely. In situations like these, try the worry box activity. Here's how to practice it: 

  1. When you realize you are worrying about a situation you can't control, jot it down on a small piece of paper. You can do more than one if you have more than one worry. 

  2. Place all the paper slips into a box that will serve as your "worry box." You might want to decorate the box to make it feel comforting. Try to find a box small enough to keep it out of sight. 

  3. Once you put your box back in its place, commit to keeping it out of your mind. Remind yourself that you will schedule time to consider these situations again later. 

  4. Extend the scheduled "worry times" further as you notice yourself placing less significance on your worries. 

  5. Once you come across a slip of paper with something written on it that no longer concerns you, dispose of it.

If you feel it would benefit you, bringing your worry box to therapy could allow you to talk through your worries with professional guidance and support. Therapy may be a space for you to openly discuss your worries and leave them at the door when you leave. 

Exercise

Regularly exercising can be valuable for your physical and mental strength and self-control. Taking a walk when feeling overwhelmed may allow you to take a break from your worries and think more profoundly about the reality of the situation. Exercise may also be able to help out with the physical symptoms of stress and worry, like muscle tension. 

Meditate

Taking a break to focus and control your breathing may help you relax. You might find that deep breathing helps you focus more on the moment, grounding your body and mind; this could reduce your anxiety. Studies show that ten minutes of mindfulness or meditation each day can be sufficient to improve mental health long-term. 

Journal

Writing out your thoughts can help you process and understand them better. As you write about your worries, you might notice inconsistencies or cognitive distortions that you did not notice before. Reading through previous journal entries may also help you notice thought patterns you want to change or have changed. This could help you find more success in shifting your perspective in the future. 

Want to stop worrying about things that are out of your control?

Get quality sleep

Healthy sleep habits can improve your overall health and help with the mental and physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder and other concerns. Ensure you get at least seven to eight hours per night, which is the recommended healthiest amount for adults. 

Practice gratitude

Feeling thankful for positive influences in your life might help you find more to be grateful for daily. Practicing gratitude regularly can help you feel more in control of your life, and the things you can't control could begin to feel less overwhelming.

Counseling to manage what you cannot change 

Suppose you struggle with frequent worrying, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, or fear of what you cannot change. In that case, you may be experiencing an underlying anxiety disorder or mental health condition, such as OCD. 

Several treatments are available for these concerns, such as exposure and response prevention (ERP) or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). These therapies often target cognitive distortions, obsessions, compulsive behavior, and making changes in your life. If you feel unsure about visiting a counselor in person, consider online therapy. 

Online therapy is often more affordable than in-person counseling. Studies indicate that internet-based CBT for OCD and anxiety was more cost-effective and valuable overall than traditional treatment. If you're interested in trying an internet-based treatment method, consider contacting a therapist through a platform like BetterHelp

Takeaway

Although there may be areas of your life that you cannot always control, you might find relief through several healing techniques, including counseling, meditation, radical acceptance, or creating a "worry box." If you're ready to work through your anxiety now, consider contacting a counselor to get started. 

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