4 Crucial Tools for Dealing with Uncertainty

Research shows that uncertainty can be particularly hard. In a recent study, people were more stressed by the idea of a 50 percent chance of receiving an electric shock than if they knew for sure it was coming. If you’ve ever known someone who had to suffer the agony of a loved one being missing long-term, you may already have seen at that at some point they were desperate just for answers– even if those answers were the worst-case scenario.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in uncertainty, and agonizingly prolonged uncertainty at that. The health risk, economic ripple effects, and lockdown measures have affected virtually every aspect of our lives, and perhaps hardest to take is the idea that there is no clear ending point. In many natural disasters and national emergencies, the initial shock is traumatic, but the rebuilding process begins soon afterward, allowing people to feel that they are on a path to a better future. With the COVID-19 effects, however, the rebuilding process may feel like it has not yet begun– and it’s hard to measure progress. The threat lingers still, and optimism feels hard to come by.

That said, there are ways to cope with uncertainty that can help counteract its stressful effects. Read on for four concepts to keep in mind as you navigate this overwhelming time.

1) Zoom in to the little moments

Being hypervigilant to threat day in and day out keeps our stress response in overdrive, taxing our autonomic nervous system to the point where we’re constantly thinking ahead or scanning our environment for what can hurt us. It’s exhausting, and it depletes our physical energy, our patience, and our concentration. To attempt to bring yourself mindfully in to the present, try to chase the little moments of beauty, comfort, joy, or humor when you can. Whether it is just seventeen seconds of your kids laughing together or a few minutes of laughing while you watch your favorite show, try to engage and let yourself take in the smallest “now”s that can help you relax. Humor, beauty, and comfort may feel fleeting in our current world, but when the tiny moments help reset your stress response and bring you out of a hypervigilant, anxious state, they can add up into something important.

2) Zoom out to your sense of meaning

There is also relief to be had from cultivating a sense of meaning. What story will you tell yourself about this time in your life someday? What story would you want to? What have you learned about yourself during this time? What have you realized is important? It’s often the struggles of our lives that get us in touch with our values– and our sense of purpose– more so than the easy phases. The more you can think in big picture terms about what matters to you, and be clear about that, the more you can manage the smaller things that are unclear. Maybe it’s a sense of community, or the love for your family. Maybe it’s helping others, building strength, or cultivating gratitude. Maybe it’s raising children or working hard at your job. There is no right answer– but as research shows us that fulfillment comes from a deeper sense of meaning more so than fleeting moments of pleasure, going deeper can be a balm against the worries of an uncertain future.

3) Find controllability and predictability where you can

Just because many aspects of your life are uncertain, doesn’t mean that they all are. As much as you shouldn’t waste too much energy trying to gain control over things that you realistically can’t, it nonetheless is helpful to carve out small areas of your life that can bring comfort because you can develop a sense of autonomy over them. Maybe you have no idea when grocery shopping will go back to how it was before, but you do know that if you stock up on your favorite breakfast items you have a sense of comfort with the ritual of eating what you like best as you start your day. Maybe your children’s schooling feels stressful and precarious with no clear return to in-person learning in sight, but you do know that during this time you want them to learn more about geography or gardening, which you will make happen. Routines can be soothing for this same reason, as long as they are not so rigid that they become perfectionistic and unable to be adjusted when needed. Finding pockets of your day that feel predictable and in your control can help you feel like although the road ahead is uncertain, you are nevertheless making the path that you are on work for you.

4) Use sensory comforts to ground yourself

Walking around in a chronic stress response, day after day, can be disorienting. Your mind may be swirling a million miles an hour, and in uncertain times, it may be constantly trying to work through the various scenarios that could happen– from bad to very bad. That’s why many people feel more forgetful or less able to sustain attention during this pandemic. So, just as engaging with the small moments is important for grounding yourself in the present, so too is using your senses. Think about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that are calming to you. From a hot bath to your favorite song, from a heavy and cozy blanket to the smell of a fresh flower, when you use a sensory experience to nudge you out of your worrying rumination, it brings you in to the here and now and can help calm your system. It’s an excellent tool to help with mindfulness. Like the Danish concept of “hygge,” which emphasizes snugness and warmth, there really is something significant in the way that coziness can calm. Especially as winter sets in, you may find that experimenting with candles, blankets, and warm drinks can help you relax and slow down in all the right ways.

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