Nothing about the current state of the world is certain. When and if schools open up, will they remain open? What date will we get called back to the office? If that date gets pushed back, what will the new date be? Are the people around us vaccinated? Is it okay to travel or attend events like weddings or funerals? If we make plans for the future, what are the chances they’ll actually unfold?
Recent research has highlighted that our ability to tolerate uncertainty is likely to play a key role in our mental health as we continue to cope with the pandemic. While understanding how we respond to uncertainty may help us alleviate some of the mental strain, how can we hope to cope with uncertainty when it’s a constant in our lives?
Come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is a part of life
Very few things in life are certain. While our brains are designed to be able to deal with uncertainty, the sheer amount that we’re dealing with now has reached levels that can make it difficult to cope.
Studies have shown that lab animals consistently prefer predictable shocks to unpredictable ones and that predictability can ameliorate the negative effects of stress. In other words, the anticipation of an uncertain threat can be worse than the thing itself. Right now, we’re dealing with daily, and often hourly, uncertain threats, so it makes total sense that the constant sense of anticipation is causing our stress levels to skyrocket.
If you’re struggling with feelings of uncertainty, that is totally valid. At the same time, a sense of perspective might help you feel more grounded.
Here are a few ways to create a sense of perspective:
Think of a time in your life when you dealt with uncertainty pretty well. What did you do then to cope? What strengths or skills did you lean on? What was the outcome? How long did it take to feel a sense of normalcy or relief again? No matter how uncertain things get, you can cope. You’ve done it before and you can do it again.
Think about all of the uncertainty in human history. Pick a time period you are interested in or think about your ancestors. What hardships did they go through? What are some possible things they did to cope? What do you think they would do now? In one hundred years, what uncertainty might the next generations face? What might they do to overcome it?
Think about your inner monologue and how it contributes to your sense of perspective. Yes, things are uncertain (and possibly bad), but is what is happening to you the worst thing to ever happen to anyone in the history of the world? The words we use matter! Instead of the worst thing to ever happen to anyone in the history of the world, you could try something like, what is happening is uncertain and difficult and it makes sense that I am stressed, but this is one day or one hour and I have X to look forward to tomorrow.
Identify what you can control and release what you can’t
Panicking about The State of the World can be completely overwhelming. There are so many things going on right now, and it might seem like you don’t have control over any of them—but you do!
Make a list of the things you can control and take action:
Maybe your return-to-the-office date keeps getting postponed, but you can lay the groundwork for what you would like your working arrangement to be with your manager in advance.
Say something like, Hey! I know we were supposed to be back in the office five days a week on September 1st, but now it looks like things are up in the air again. As we pivot and keep planning for the future, I’d love to talk about a flexible arrangement for me/our team, as we’ve made tons of progress with _____ over the past few months and have really gotten the remote cadence down. Even if they can’t or won’t agree right off the bat, at least you planted a seed that you can keep watering.
Maybe you don’t know who around you is vaccinated when you’re out in public, but you can take steps to protect yourself by wearing a mask or maintaining physical distance and clearly communicate your own boundaries with family and friends about what you’re comfortable with.
Maybe you had travel planned or have had to cancel or postpone a trip or are missing your loved ones who live far away. Many people are burned out from video chats, but you can get creative and resurrect an early-lockdown event that brought you joy, plan a staycation, or create an in-depth itinerary for a trip you want to take in the future.
When it comes to things you can’t control:
Create a boundary even if it feels like there isn’t one. Maybe you were looking forward to going back into the office in the near future because it would finally get you off of video meetings and now your plans have changed. Suggest a video-free day for your team, book an hour mid-day each day to log off and get outside, or block your Fridays for deep work to keep them meeting-free.
It might feel like it’s impossible to control our emotions or reactions to what is going on, but we have more control than we think. First, validate how you feel. It’s one hundred percent okay to be sad, scared, angry, frustrated, resentful, and whatever else you’re feeling. But it’s not necessarily the best course for you in the long run. How would you like to feel? Relaxed? Empowered? Safe? Heard? What actions can you take to move toward these emotions instead?
Think about what you can release or alleviate from your headspace. Maybe arguing with friends or family about their decisions or beliefs is wearing you down. It’s hard to walk away from people we love, but it’s not always possible to change their minds. Leave the group chat, politely but firmly tell them you won’t be discussing certain topics going forward, or do whatever you need to do to create a boundary with whoever is draining your energy. If economic uncertainty is looming, that’s not something you can simply walk away from. But sometimes, when we lack a sense of control, it can cause us not to act. Instead, make saving, finding a job, or negotiating a raise a priority—whatever you need to do to be able to take control and alleviate the sense of uncertainty.
Don’t fuel the flames of uncertainty
When we are unsure about what is going on or what might happen in the future, it might seem like being constantly plugged in, knowing everything about everything, or doing everything in our power to prepare for the unknown is the best course of action, but that amount of attention can backfire and lead to burnout.
Instead of feeding the uncertainty fire:
Limit or control your media consumption. When it comes to the news, overthinking about, obsessing over, or ruminating about negative events like COVID-19 updates or sad news stories won’t give you new information, but it will negatively impact your mental health. We’re not advocating denial or keeping your head in the sand, but limiting your exposure to the 24-7 news cycle that is designed to hold your attention is the only way to ensure that it doesn’t completely take over your headspace.
Keep lines of communication open. Whether it’s with your partner, roommates, friends, family, or boss, make sure you’re both being heard and listening. If things have been tough at home, set aside time to talk about it instead of ignoring it or constantly obsessing over it. If you’re not sure if things are going well at work, let your boss know how uncertain you’ve felt and ask for clarity or reassurance.
Activate your parasympathetic nervous system. During periods of stress, your sympathetic nervous system, or your “fight or flight” response, is activated. To get out of “fight or flight” mode, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous, or “rest and digest,” system. There are a few things you can try, like square breathing, yoga, meditation, spending time in nature, talking to a friend, family member, pet, or other loved one, or anything that slows you down and rejuvenates you.
Be kind to yourself and find the support you need
Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and the constant need for our brains to differentiate between real and perceived threats or calculate risk or try to absorb and analyze conflicting and ever-changing guidelines and information from the CDC, local governments, work, and even friends and family is super stressful.
It makes complete and total sense that you’re feeling the impact of this round-the-clock uncertainty, so prioritize self-care and healthy coping strategies that will help you navigate the ups and downs. Make time to connect with friends and family who love and support you and if you need additional mental health support, working with a therapist or coach can help. While nothing may seem certain, you do have the ability to rest, cope, and care for yourself.