Written by Jon Novello LMSW, ACSW, a Counselor with MSU’s Employee Assistance Program
Uncertainty. Along with pods, social distancing, and “you’re on mute,” uncertainty has become one of the buzzwords of this global pandemic. That’s for a good reason. We are living in a state of chronic and ongoing uncertainty. The reality of COVID-19 and our ongoing, evolving response to it continues to impact the everyday lives of every human on the planet. Many of us feel out of control in a world where our future is unclear and unpredictable.
And we really don’t like to feel out of control. We find uncertainty hard to cope with even in the best of times. According to Dr. Christine Carter, a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center and author of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction, humans “crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.”
Think about that: our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat. When faced with a situation where we can’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out, we feel threatened, afraid of the unknown future. To deal with this fear, we begin to seek out more certainty to convince ourselves that things will be ok. We look for answers, information, reassurance from some external force that can tell us that things will work out so that we can feel better.
That’s what many of us are looking for right now: an answer to make us feel better about the pandemic. An example of this is how frustrated many people feel about the science of COVID-19. To satisfy our feelings of insecurity in so much uncertainty, we want science to be clear and definitive — to tell us how long this will last, what we need to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and when exactly a vaccine will be available so that things can “go back to normal.” But science is ever- evolving, and new information gained sometimes means that we have to adjust our understanding of reality. If we look for definitive answers when we are still researching the problem, we may end up feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.
As Dr. Carter points out, “sometimes — maybe always — it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty.” Seeking more certainty when we are surrounded by so much unknown leads us to constantly try to control that which we can’t control, which results in more anxiety, not less. Instead, what tends to help us get through moments like this is learning to live with ambiguity.
To that end, here are six strategies to help you navigate a world that is so uncertain.
- Make your health a priority. Invest in your wellbeing right now. It’s easy to focus our attention and care on other people, especially those of us who are caregivers and fixers. But, that attention to others still costs us, in energy and resources. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, then we run out of juice at some point, and that can lead to more intense feelings of anxiety and depression.
Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep (or at least rest). Eat well to nourish your body. Spend time with your friends in creative ways. Play, read, listen, dance, sing, run, hug, love. These things fill us up and rejuvenate us, but they are easy to neglect.
- Exhibit compassion, patience, and grace. Many people are struggling right now, and that emotional toll can sometimes play out in how they interact with you. You may notice that some of your coworkers have shorter fuses than they might typically have. An employee at a local business you like may not be as attentive to you while providing you service. This is normal during a time like this.
It is important to try to interact with others from a position of empathy and curiosity. If someone is having a hard time, rather than complain about them, try to wonder what might be going on in their lives that is making it hard for them to be pleasant. That doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate bad behavior. There are times when we need to set clear limits with others. But we can do that from a position of compassion and grace.
- Explore the concept of acceptance. This can be tricky. This doesn’t mean to simply resign yourself to the bad stuff. Rather, acceptance allows us to look at the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be. When we focus on what we’d rather see, we observe the world from a state of resistance, where our attention stays solely on what’s wrong and why it shouldn’t be this way. It might be easy for me to spend hours dwelling on why people aren’t wearing masks properly in downtown East Lansing. While I might be able to come up with countless reasons that prove that my thoughts are correct, this doesn’t do anything to change those people’s behavior, nor does it stop the spread of COVID-19. Rather, it keeps me in a position of anger and hopelessness, which affects only me.
Acceptance, on the other hand, allows me to approach the problem from a place of openness, curiosity, and creativity. Given that people are not wearing masks, and given that I am concerned about the spread of this disease, what can I do about it at this moment? Acceptance points our attention in a specific direction, toward what is possible, rather than what is not working.
- Notice what you can control, and work to accept what you can’t. Here’s something that we know to be true: we tend to do worse psychologically when we focus our attention on things that we can’t control; and we tend to do better when our attention is focused on things we can control. That seems like an easy concept to understand, but it’s hard to do sometimes. Dwelling on those things that are out of our control can be so compelling. But it can lead us to feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Plus, the reality is that we have no control over most of the world around us.
When we focus on what we can control, it allows us to feel more in control. I can’t control who wears masks and who doesn’t, but I can control what I choose to do when I walk downtown. I can’t control whether someone is snippy with me at work, but I can control how I respond to that person. I can’t control whether people share the same political view as me, but I can control how I show up and whether I vote. I can’t directly control whether oppression or injustice is happening, but I can control how I stand up to it. We can control how much we are doing to take care of our minds, spirits, and bodies.
- Be more present. “The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence.” When we try to create more certainty, we try to control the future. We are trying to make things work out in the way that we’d prefer. But, again, we typically have so little control of most things that it can lead to feelings of anxiety and frustration. Rather than trying to seek more certainty, we could instead focus on the present, which is the only place where we have control.
Remember that we do better when we feel in control. When your brain slips into imagining a scary and unknown future, bring your attention to your breath. From there, check in with yourself, asking what you need right now to feel ok. What is happening right now? What is possible right now? What do I need right now?
- If you need help with any of this, get help. If you are struggling and wondering if you need assistance, reach out and ask for help. There are plenty of resources available to you. As an MSU employee, you have access to six sessions of free, confidential counseling through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). For people that need more than six visits, the EAP will be able to provide you with referrals to local therapists that are in- network with your insurance plan. In addition, there are many other resources available through MSU, and in the larger community. Feel free to look over this guide for more information about what resources are available to you.
Carter, C. (2020). The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.