Control Freaks Are Having a Moment

During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s okay to obsess over hobbies. Okay? Okay?!

When I first understood the severity of coronavirus, I did what I always do when I’m stressed out: I started cooking. A lot.

Of soup.

I made so many soups: Lentil kielbasa. Chicken and rice soup. Chicken tortilla. Chicken and lentil. They filled up my freezer until there was no more room, at which point I started eating soup for every meal and hoarding it in my fridge. I gave my sister quarts and quarts of frozen soup. I even set up a Twitch account with plans to livestream my soup-making as entertainment while we’re all stuck inside. It’s the end of the world, but the soups? The soups will still be there, fueling me as I try to barter my futile skills as a blogger for a hand axe and two sweet potatoes.

I’ve always been a home cook, but certainly not to this degree. Until recently, I didn’t really know what was driving me to do all this cooking. But several soups deep, I realized: I was doing it to have some semblance of control over a situation that very much seemed to be spiraling out of control.

It turns out, control freaks like me are made for crippling global pandemics. My soup-making is how I try to wrest control back from a very uncontrollable world. And there’s (almost) nothing wrong with it.

It’s okay to assert control through activities

After my realization, I queried my Twitter followers about what they were doing to find control amid chaos. A sampling:

“I’m finally polishing all my silver and it feels so good.”

“I’m mostly knitting and crocheting things for my family; I made slippers for my husband and a sweater for my oldest.”

“I cleaned my boyfriend’s oven.”

I got hundreds of responses from people who wanted to share their longtime or newfound coping mechanisms with me.

Vaile Wright, the director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, says all these ways of exerting control — my soup production included — represent humans’ collective intolerance of uncertainty and the unknown. Our ability to cope with uncertainty is a spectrum, she explains, but to varying degrees, we’re all facing the same challenge right now: Nothing feels stable, which makes us anxious and stressed out. So we act on those feelings. Stuck in our homes, we find projects and rituals to bring us comfort.

But there are plenty of unhealthy ways to control

Of course, some people are attempting to feel in control by panic-buying sacks of rice and root vegetables from grocery stores, or trying to control the people in their lives even more than they always have. Fredric Rabinowitz, a psychology professor at the University of Redlands, told the Los Angeles Times that the coronavirus pandemic “represents a break in everyday reality which will make people use whatever coping mechanisms have worked in the past.” For some, he said, “It is to take control. For others, it is to protect themselves at all costs.”

In general, though, developing strategies to gain control is beneficial — especially if those strategies result in something tangible and satisfying.

“When you get down to the effective ways [of dealing with uncertainty], it’s really identifying your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how you might address them,” Wright says. “Baking bread — if that’s something that brings you joy and mastery, that’s great. I think there’s a tangible element to the bread. You can look at it and say ‘I did that thing.’ It serves as both a distraction, which is good, but also you’ve created something that wasn’t there before.”

Spread your control among multiple activities

It’s important to develop a multitude of coping mechanisms. “At some point, by baking seven loaves of bread a week, you’re probably not feeling good anymore. Whatever effect it had on you has probably worn off,” Wright tells me.

A hammer is really great for hanging a picture on the wall, but it won’t put a chair together; you need a screwdriver for that. Coping skills work the same way. “Have a variety of coping skills in your toolbox, including those that are easily accessible and that you can take anywhere,” she says.

Focus on the physical, if you can: a lot of us hold our anxiety and stress in our bodies, so take a moment to check in with your body, even if it’s just to stretch. “[Cooking] is very specific to being in your kitchen and having ingredients, but controlled breathing or meditation you can do anywhere,” Wright says.

Me? I’m gonna make more soup. But if I run out of space, or no longer feel better when I do it, I’ll hit pause and pick up a new hobby. I’ve been thinking that this might be a good time to get really really REALLY into cross-stitch.

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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