Do you know anyone who is naturally immune to the unrest that uncertainty often brings? I don’t. I’d suggest there is far more emotional turmoil about the ravages of our lives torn asunder by COVID-19, than there are actual victims suffering with the disease. Uncertainty and its wake of confusion and disorder is by far the leading emotional challenge we face during this pandemic.
We all respond to uncertainty differently, of course. Many are suffering with heightened unhealthy negative feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, depression and rage, each anchored in uncompromising and unyielding low frustration tolerance and horrific predictions. Others feel healthy negative emotions such as concern, fear, sadness, annoyance, unsettled emotions, all normal given the dreadful life-changing events this infection has brought with it.
The reality of life over the past several months as a direct result of COVID-19 has led to a global mounting death toll, a world ordered to shelter-at-home, a staggering loss of income with jobs and businesses devastated, and an economy that has been overthrown and crushed. Living with uncertainty about what will happen fills the minds and hearts of so many with apprehensions about how we will recover, if we do, what will going back to work and school look like, and when will we get past this. The list of alarms and fears go on and on.
One expert on loss, Dr. Pauline Boss, describes the feeling so many are experiencing as “ambiguous loss,” encompassing unimaginable circumstances that result in ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s just what we are facing today.
The truth is we’ve always been living with uncertainty. Who actually believes there has ever been certainty in life? What is certain besides death? Surely not your job, your relationship, your health, your vacation plans, an important package arriving on the date it was “assured,” having hot water. You get the point. We do not know the future, or if there will be one with us in it. Our task, before, during and after COVID-19, is to unfreeze our anxiety and grief, to disturb ourselves less by gaining an understanding of the changes and losses we experience in life. You see, in the end, we can bear not knowing, we can accept uncertainty and we can recognize that ambiguity is quite often a part of every step we take. Yet, total mastery over the appalling tribulations COVID-19 has infected life with, is unrealistic.
As we begin to prepare to return to work, school, and life in general, many are experiencing a chronic re-traumatization cycle. Some hold thoughts that nothing will be different, the pandemic didn’t really create that much of an upheaval, while others are unable to stop re-experiencing the related emotional trauma and uncertainty that the pandemic continues to bring.
How can we best prepare ourselves to face the remainder of 2020 with healthy 20/20 vision? How can we free ourselves of emotional trepidations that engulf our minds and fill our bodies and spirit with mental blockades, thwarting our ability to productively live life, and flourish? How can we boost our ability to meet uncertainty with more flexibility, acceptance and a soothing mindset? And what’s uncertainty really have to do with feeling torment? In other words, how can we surmount the absurdity of uncertainty adversity?
1. Let’s begin answering these questions with, well, some more questions.
When was the last time you counted on something working out really well and it only worked out about half as well as you thought? How’d you cope with that? Where you able to get through it and survive? You’re still here, so I guess it might have been bad, but you made it through. Learn anything from that experience about your adeptness in coping with the normal uncertainties of life? Perhaps the first lesson to learn is that you are tolerant of uncertainty after all.
2. Now let’s move on to another proficiency in dealing with uncertainty. Acceptance. No, we don’t necessarily like uncertainty, but it is an inevitable part of life. Therefore, it’d be far better to acknowledge that fact, realistically consent to its existence, and be willing to fully experience it. Said simply, say “yes” to uncertainty instead of fighting it. You’ll find that sharing your feelings helps normalize your experience, and further promote acceptance. Yes, acceptance is an essential step in dealing with uncertainty. In other words, don’t sweat the uncertainty stuff.
3. There is meaning in the present of uncertainty. See it? Instead of focusing on “what if?” “what if it doesn’t_____?” “what if we never_____?” stay in the now. Negative predictions about the future can create anxiety. It is a “going to” disorder. This is going to happen, that is going to happen. Instead of predicting horror, stay in the present. Can you use this time, now in the present, to improve relationships, become more creative about your career and business venture, spend more time speaking with friends? When you focus on what you can control, you have far less uncertainty. Predicting that work will be a horrible situation when you return, that you will lose your job, that your business will be ruined? How’s that making you feel? What can you control now instead of living in a tomorrow that may not even happen? Worry about possibilities fully undermines your ability to change what you can. Those thriving through uncertainty don’t take mind excursions to the land of “what if.”
4. Next comes the importance of being kind to yourself, bringing more self-compassion into your life. Focus on past situations that worked out far better than you thought, where you overcame circumstances you thought you’d succumb to and didn’t. Celebrating your strengths, focusing on what’s going right, will help you eliminate ruminating over what’s not going as predicted. You may have a crystal ball on your bookshelf, but you’re not a fortune teller. This is an excellent time to do whatever you can to eat well, exercise and get restorative sleep. Listening to the news? Uh, why? Positive thoughts, healthier thoughts, about the world situation will quiet your “wandering to the negative” brain. Why fill your mind with the “if it bleeds, it leads” frightening on purpose news headlines? Instead, think about your own day and focus on a few positive things that’ve happened. Not perfect things, just positive things.
5. Finally, want to cope with uncertainty?
Think that things in your life must, should or ought to be a certain way? Substitute a more preferential approach.
Think it’s awful, terrible and horrible that there’s so much uncertainty? Substitute reality – it’s bad, very bad indeed. But that’s all it is.
Think you can’t tolerate or bear this uncertainty? Substitute the more realistic belief that while you may not like it, you can surely stand it, since you have in the past, quite well.
The absurdity of uncertainty adversity is thoroughly irrational in that it is something we fully concoct, suffer with and sustain in our own thinking. Change your thinking about uncertainty and yes, uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability will continue. But your agony, anguish and misery about uncertainty will fade. In its place a less self-disturbing, happier and healthier life can be yours.