Dealing with uncertainty is a part of daily life. Although we can predict certain events, situations, or things that will happen, this does not apply to everything. As humans, we like to be able to know what is happening next, and when we do not, this can be particularly stressful and anxiety provoking.
We are halfway through 2020, and uncertainty continues to be high about many things related to the pandemic, public places opening, schools starting again, and many other topics that do not have clear plans at this time. Uncertainty is a large part of the stress response in general, and uncertainty is particularly high right now as we continue to cope with the COVID pandemic.
Read below to understand the function of uncertainty, why it makes coping difficult, and how to better manage it and stop it from interfering in your life.
Understanding Uncertainty and How it Impacts Anxiety
From a survival standpoint, if we can predict the probability, timing, and relevance of a future event, we can save resources for that moment and have a better chance of survival in the future. However, specific information about future events is usually not available, so although this would be ideal, it is not possible. However, the stressed mind will tell us that it is, and try to get us to think about all possible future scenarios and what will happen.
Not only do we predict various hypothetical scenarios, but we imagine what would happen if they occurred, and this can feel as upsetting and anxiety provoking, as if it is happening in real life. Not only do we predict hypothetical scenarios, but we tend to predict worse-case hypothetical situations. As you can imagine, imaging a series of worst-case scenarios about the future is a major cause of high stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.
No one likes uncertainty except for one thing-anxiety! Uncertainty is a breeding ground for high stress and anxiety. When there is a lot of uncertainty or things are unclear, stress and anxiety tend to be higher in general, so that is important to keep in mind.
When uncertainty, and therefore stress and anxiety, are high, we start to experience unwanted stress symptoms, such as increased heart rate, feeling overwhelmed, sleepless nights, and low productivity. Not exactly the winning combo for reaching our goals and accomplishing the things we want to do.
Why Coping with Uncertainty is Challenging
There are several reasons why we do not do well with uncertainty. First, when we cannot predict the future, we are unable to avoid or reduce the negative effect of something happening, which then leads to anxiety. From an evolutionary standpoint, being able to anticipate threats and prevent them or manage them is a part of our natural survival. However, there are many situations that come up in everyday life that are not related to our survival, but they could still be very uncertain, and therefore trigger this evolutionary response. Not super helpful for everyday situations as you can imagine.
A big feature of anxiety overall is anticipatory stress about what will happen. Anxiety will often try to trick us into thinking that if we think of every future scenario and try to prepare and plan for it, we will feel less anxious. However, uncertainty leads to more anxiety, which makes coping with stress and anxiety in general, and especially with uncertainty, even more challenging.
Uncertainty is a part of life and learning to tolerate some uncertainty is very important. This is especially important right now since uncertainty about many things is exceptionally high. So, having tools not only to manage everyday uncertainty, but also ongoing uncertainty and anxiety related to the COVID pandemic is a crucial part of mood management and mastering stress.
How to Cope with Uncertainty
Focus on What is in your Control
Most things that are uncertain are also out of our control. By virtue of being uncertain, that means that we don’t know the answers, the solutions, or what is to come. In general, focusing on things that we cannot control significantly increases stress and anxiety, causes us to feel overwhelmed, avoidant, and distressed, and interferes with attention and productivity.
Right now, especially as it relates to the pandemic, there is a tendency to focus on many things that are out of our control.
“When will the pandemic end”
“What if I get sick”
“When will there be a vaccine and will it work”
You get the picture. We could come up with many questions that we do not have the answers to, and that is going to be more distressing than anything else. Although it is normal to have such thoughts, they also greatly increase anxiety since these things are out of our control.
So, instead focus on what is in your control. This might include how you take care of yourself, what you do in your free time, how you keep your immune system strong, what you want to do in the workplace that is in your control, and other things that you have some power to address or change.
Remember, uncertainty will always try to get us to focus on what is out of our control, so gently remind yourself to focus on what is in your control and plan around that. You will always feel more empowered and in control when you are able to focus on what you can control or prepare for in the future.
Stop the "What If" Train
A classic anxiety phrase starts with “what if.” Once the what if train leaves the station, it is very difficult to bring it back. So, start noticing this kind of thinking and do your best to hit the stop button for the train. This does take practice, but the more attention you give your thoughts, the more you will be able to catch them before they take off at lightning speed.
This is where the hypothetical scenarios come in. High stress and anxiety will try to tell you to plan for every possible scenario to protect yourself or to prevent it from happening. This is because of the evolutionary response mentioned above that is designed to anticipate danger to help us survive. However, we cannot prevent hypothetical situations usually or predict every possible scenario, as much as anxiety will tell us that we can.
What do we get instead? Insomnia, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, and distractibility. Imagining hypothetical what if situations is well, exhausting, for your body and your mind. It takes a lot of energy and mental capacity to be focused here, so keep that in mind as well. Not only does this kind of thinking greatly increase stress, it also zaps mental clarity, attention, and energy.
A good time to look out for what if thoughts is when you are feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or uncertain. These thoughts only come about once we’re stressing, so a great time to check in with yourself and your thoughts is when you first start to feel stressed or anxious.
The earlier you catch the train, the faster you will be able to slow it down.
Notice you are engaging in the what if thinking, remind yourself why that is not helpful, and refocus to the present and things you can control.
Accept Uncertainty as Part of Life
Uncertainty is a part of life. We cannot control or predict everything in life, so learning to accept uncertainty as a part of life is important. This is especially important right now because there is so much uncertain with the pandemic, making this extra challenging. Life in general is not predictable, nor is the course of the pandemic at this time, so accepting that life can be unpredictable is useful for emotional wellbeing.
Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean you are happy about it, like it, or feel good about it. It means that you recognize that this is a part of life, a part of this pandemic, and not something that you can control or change.
*Be kind* to yourself, and acknowledge that uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it is a part of life. It’s okay to acknowledge that coping with uncertainty is hard (because it is!), and also accept that you cannot control or change everything. Accepting uncertainty is a major part of stress relief and anxiety, so this is crucial for emotional wellbeing.
Identify what makes it hard to accept uncertainty. Do you expect perfectionism from yourself? Do you believe that excessively worrying about future scenarios will ease anxiety? Do you feel influenced or easily triggered by external influences such as others panic buying, social media opinions, or other external influences?
Ask yourself what makes it hard to accept uncertainty and focus on small changes you can make in that area to help you cope with it better.
Stay Focused in the Present
As mentioned above, anxiety will always try to pull you in the future and encourage you to try to predict, plan, and prevent hypothetical situations. So, one of the best defenses against high stress and anxiety is staying focused in the present. The present will have a lot more certainty in it than the future, so staying focused in the present is a major key to success.
This relates to the other tips mentioned, because by staying focused in the present, you also focus on what is in your control, power to change, and cope with what is actually going on in your life (we all have enough to deal with in the present right now) rather than hypothetical situations.
First, notice when you are drifting into the future or imagining hypothetical situations. Gently bring your attention back the present. Shift your focus to something you can change, address, or control.
Then, engage in further mindfulness practices that allow you to stay focused in the present and combat high stress and anxiety. This may include engaging in an activity you enjoy, taking some deep breaths, or going through a muscle relaxation exercise.
Mindfulness is about staying present in the now, so this is a great anxiety management strategy and tool for dealing with uncertainty.
Engage in Preventive Stress Management
You already know that uncertainty can lead to high stress and anxiety, so doing things regularly to manage stress is a crucial aspect to emotional wellness and coping with uncertainty. Rather than waiting for the stress to consume you, beat it to the punch by regularly engaging in stress relief activities. *Prevention*, rather than reaction.
Then, when uncertainty hits, you will be less stressed in general, which will allow you to better manage.
This includes fueling your body with nutritious and energy boosting foods, moving your body regularly, getting quality sleep, and engaging in beneficial activities and social interactions.
Coping with Uncertainty Summary
Uncertainty is something that we all experience, and it is a regular part of life, especially right now as it applies to the coronavirus pandemic.
The best ways to deal with uncertainty are to focus on what is on our control, stay focused in the present, do things to regularly manage stress and anxiety, and monitor stress thoughts that fuel anxiety carefully.
Follow these tips, and you will a pro at handling uncertainty in life!
*Ready to stop stress and anxiety from getting in your way? Get in touch so I can support you, guide you, and be your partner in mastering your stress with expert stress and anxiety coaching.*
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