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5 ways to cope with uncertainty when your world changes

It’s normal to feel anxious and fearful when you don’t know what’s around the corner. These simple habits can reduce anxious thoughts and give you a sense of perspective.

When I wrote my blog last month welcoming the arrival of Spring I could never have imagined what would arrive with it this year. A global pandemic that is testing the world to the limit.

Safety and certainty are core human needs, and when these are threatened it can cause us to worry and panic, as we try to cling to what’s familiar and find a way to control and predict our way to safety.

Every minute of every day we are being exposed to a barrage of global media coverage. From shocking pictures coming from our hospitals, frightening statistics about infections, deaths and the impact on the economy, to uplifting tales of community spirit, innovation and acts of courage.

We know our world has been changed forever. And as with any crisis, change is inevitable, for better or worse. We just don’t know how things will turn out. And we don’t like not knowing.

So why do we struggle so much with uncertainty?

Most of you will be familiar with the term fight or flight. It’s our inbuilt automatic response to perceived threat designed to protect us.

Human brains are wired to link uncertainty to fear. Being fearful triggers our flight or fight responses, and then our mind and body is thrown into survival mode. Fear is in response to a real threat occurring in the present moment. Anxiety is anticipation of something that might happen in the future. The thing is our brain doesn’t know the difference so triggers our stress responses regardless.

We also use past experiences to predict the future. This is so we can maximise our chance of a successful outcome and minimise the chance of a negative outcome. Now who here has lived through a global pandemic before? Where’s our past reference points? How do we make good decisions? How do we protect our status quo?

On some level, we all know there is no certainty in life. The truth is we get used to our life as it is.

So how can we deal with uncertainty and look after our mental wellbeing? Here are 5 simple things you can start doing today.

Focus on what you can control.

You can control your thoughts. At the simplest level – your thoughts dictate your feelings, which drive your actions. So if you are constantly feeding your brain with negative information, frightening media coverage, criticizing yourself for not being a perfect parent/partner/friend, and generally being unkind to yourself, you’re going to feel anxious and stressed and then you’re going to descend into fight or flight.

Become your own cheerleader. What can you say to yourself to make yourself feel good? What are you doing well? How have you adapted? If you were supporting your friend what would you say to them? Then say these things to yourself.

You can control how you spend your time, when you go to sleep, what you eat. Having a more positive internal dialogue will lead to better choices and a better frame of mind.

Limit negative inputs

It’s useful to stay informed but consuming too much media coverage just feeds anxieties and causes overwhelm. Limiting yourself to one news update a day is a good start.

There are so many positive stories out there but we need to be proactive as our social media feeds are littered with news coverage, distressing images and other people’s opinions.

You can decide what books you read, the bloggers you follow, the social media platforms you engage with. Take a look at how much of your feed or content is bad news and actively look for more positive sources to take inspiration from.

A digital detox is often recommended however right now many of us are relying on technology to connect us to loved ones and stay sane! But spending time reading a good book, watching a feel good film, or doing an online course is going to make you feel much better.

Many of us coaches and therapists are sharing a huge amount of useful advice, inspiring insights and free content to help people stay well so it’s easier than ever to find something to make a positive difference to the way you think and feel.

Practice Gratitude

“enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things”

Robert Brault

I like this quote, because it instantly reminds me of the times I didn’t appreciate what was right in front of me. All the times I was so focused on my work I missed out on something important. And for a brief moment I take a look around me and notice something small that I appreciate.

There are many scientific studies on the benefits of regularly practicing gratitude. It encourages our brains to release dopamine and serotonin – natural mood enhancers which can in turn help relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also re-directs our attention back to what we have rather than what we don’t have.

Create a regular habit of saying or writing 3 things you’re grateful for each day. Gratitude is a feeling, so make time to really be present with it. Whatever your preference – lists, journals, mantras, thank you letters – find something that you can really connect with and do regularly. Doing the exercise with loved ones is also a great a way of creating connection when we’re isolating and takes the focus away from anxious thoughts and bad news.

Create a routine

Especially if you’re not used to working from home, have different childcare arrangements in place, or are spending your days on your own. A routine gives us focus, consistency and a sense of control and normality. It’s also important not to have something too rigid, as that can cause stress if the routine doesn’t happen as planned. A simple structure incorporating the must do’s such as work, helping children with school work, preparing meals and then those things that often get put to the bottom of the to-do list such as exercise, hobbies, and quiet reflection time to read or meditate.

If you’re on your own making time to connect with other people is important. If you live in a busy household it’s equally important to ensure everyone has some personal space and downtime.

Lower your standards for yourself- just a bit

Yes, that’s allowed! I’m not telling you to start letting your health go, put in less effort at work, let your kids run riot… what I am suggesting is that for now, let yourself off a bit. Most people have extremely high standards for themselves. These can be held deep in our subconscious, so there’s no tangible benchmark. This means we don’t know when these standards have been met, so we never feel we are achieving enough.

We constantly tell ourselves we can do more/better, work harder/longer. I’ve had calls from stressed friends beating themselves up because they’ve “failed” to turn into an expert teacher overnight, or they haven’t completely spring cleaned the house like “other people” have. Or they don’t know how to motivate themselves to work from home, so they just sit there longer to make sure they’re “doing their hours”.

STOP. These are extraordinary times, and everyone is in the same boat.

You can only do your best. What you’re feeling is normal. This time will pass. Eckhart Tolle reminds us that even in difficult times, there is always opportunity.

“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life”.

Eckhart Tolle
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