Managing uncertainty

Updated: Nov 18

It might be worth acknowledging that uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of all of our lives. However, the coronavirus outbreak has shown, that uncertainty has major negative impact on our health when changes are unpredictable. You may have to adjust to sudden changes, job loss, remote work, becoming unwell, or even struggling with the inability to get home to your country or seeing your family and friends regularly. You might develop catastrophic thoughts and become anxious about when the pandemic will end or if your life will ever return to normal.

To cope with all this uncertainty, many people develop unhealthy coping strategies such worry as a tool for trying to predict the future and avoid nasty surprises. Worrying gives us some sense of control over uncertain circumstances. You may overthink situations with the hope of finding a solution to your problems or even to prepare you for the worst. Many of us have developed these patterns of coping with stress, going over every possibility, or reading every opinion online, hoping you’ll find a solution and be able to control the outcome. Unfortunately, none of this works. Chronic worrying can’t give you more control over such an uncontrollable event as the Coronavirus. This pattern of behaviour will rob you of the joy that comes with living in the present moment, sapping your energy, and causing you sleep problems. But there are healthier ways to cope with uncertainty—and that begins with adjusting your mindset.

The following tips can help you to:

  • Focus on controlling those things that are under your control

  • Challenge your need for certainty.

  • Learn to better tolerate, even embrace, the inevitable uncertainty of life.

  • Reduce your anxiety and stress levels.

Tip 1: Take action over the things you can control

It is important to differentiate the things you can control from the things that remain out of your control. So for example, while you can’t control the spread of a virus, the recovery of the economy, or whether you’ll have still be filling the same role in your job by the end of the year, you’re not powerless and this situation is not beyond you. Despite your increasing fears or personal circumstances, try to refocus your mind on taking positive action over the aspects of your life that are within your control such as how much enthusiasm you put into changing the way you approach working from home. Similarly, if you’re worried about your health amid the coronavirus pandemic, you can take be more crareful, wearing a mask, regularly washing your hands, cleaning surfaces, avoiding crowds, and looking out for vulnerable friends and neighbours.

Actively deal with your emotions

When circumstances such as the rise in coronavirus infections are out of your control, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by fear and negative emotions such as anger and sadness. It is important to acknowledge how you feel though it is tempting to deny or suppress your emotions. This will only increase stress and anxiety and make you more vulnerable to depression or burnout.

Actively confronting these negative emotions and allowing yourself to experience uncertainty in this way can help you reduce stress, better come to terms with your circumstances, and find a sense of peace as you deal with challenges.

Tip 2: Challenge your need for certainty

While managing the uncertainty of a pandemic means adjusting to this new normal, the change can bring overwhelm and the adoption of new coping behaviours. In addition to worrying and overthinking, you might be

Excessively seeking reassurance from others. You repeatedly ask friends or loved ones if you’re making the right decision, endlessly research information online, or seek out expert advice in an effort to remove uncertainty from your life.

Micromanage people. You refuse to delegate tasks to others, either at work or home. You may even try to force people around you to change, to make their behaviour more predictable for you.

Procrastinate. By not making decisions, you hope to avoid the uncertainty that inevitably follows. You’ll find ways to delay or postpone acting—or even avoid certain situations all together—in an attempt to prevent bad things from happening.

Repeatedly check things. You call or text your family, friends, or kids again and again to make sure they’re safe. You check and re-check emails, texts, or forms before sending, double-check lists to ensure you haven’t missed anything that could have repercussions on the predictability of the future.

How to challenge these behaviours

You can challenge these coping behaviors you’ve adopted to alleviate the discomfort of uncertainty by asking yourself:

  1. What are the advantages of certainty? What are the disadvantages? Although our lives are different, and we are experiencing unexpected events and surprises—it is not not always a bad thing. Surprises aren't always unpleasant for instance we have—more time with our loved ones, and time to ourselves, we may have experienced an unexpected promotion or phone call from an old friend. Opportunity often arises from the unexpected and having to face uncertainty in life can also help you learn to adapt, overcome challenges, and increase your resiliency. It can help you to grow as a person.

  2. How much can you be absolutely certain about in life? Does anyone have a job for life, a guarantee of good health, or absolute certainty over what tomorrow will bring? Behaviors such as worrying, micromanaging, and procrastinating offer the illusion of having some control over a situation, but what do they change in reality? The truth is no matter how much you try to plan and prepare for every possible outcome, life will find a way of surprising you. All striving for certainty really does is fuel worry and anxiety.

  3. Do you assume bad things will happen just because an outcome is uncertain? What is the likelihood they will? When you’re faced with uncertainty, it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening—and underestimate your ability to cope if it does. But given that the likelihood of something bad happening is low, even at this precarious time, is it possible to live with that small chance and focus instead on the more likely outcomes? Ask your friends and family how they cope with uncertainty in specific circumstances. Could you do the same?

By challenging your need for certainty, you can begin to let go of negative behaviours, reduce stress and worry, and free up time and energy for more practical purposes.

Tip 3: Learn to accept uncertainty

If you’re religious, you are more likely accept some doubt and uncertainty as part of your faith.

When irrational fears and worries present their ugly heads, it can be difficult to challenge them, to think logically and accurately weigh up the probability of something bad happening. To help you become more tolerant and accepting of uncertainty, the following steps can help:

Identify your uncertainty triggers. A lot of uncertainty tends to be self-generated, through excessive worrying or a pessimistic outlook, for example. However, some uncertainty can be generated by external sources, especially at times like this. Reading media stories that focus on worst-case scenarios, spending time on social media amid rumours and half-truths, or simply communicating with anxious friends can all fuel your own fears and uncertainties. When you become aware of your triggers, you can take action to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.

Recognize when you feel the need for certainty. Notice when you start to feel anxious and fearful about a situation, begin to worry about what-ifs, or feel like a situation is far worse than it actually is. Look for the physical cues that you’re feeling anxious. You might notice the tension in your neck or shoulders, shortness of breath, the onset of a headache, or an empty feeling in your stomach. Take a moment to pause and recognize that you’re craving reassurance or a guarantee.

Allow yourself to feel the uncertainty. Instead of engaging in futile efforts to gain control over the uncontrollable, let yourself experience the discomfort of uncertainty. Like all emotions, if you allow yourself to feel fear and uncertainty, they will eventually pass. Focus on the present moment and your breathing and allow yourself to simply feel and observe the uncertainty you’re experiencing. Take some slow, deep breaths or try meditating to keep you anchored in the present. I personally use the insight timer.

For more professional support and expert advice, you can take advantage of my complimentary call which is available until the end of November.

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