- Uncertainty is a major cause of stress and can affect your mental and physical health.
- To better deal with uncertainty, practice mindfulness and follow a routine.
- Most importantly, learn to accept uncertainty as there will always be things out of your control.
Research shows that uncertainty can be appealing during certain activities like gambling or reading a mystery novel. But the large-scale uncertainty that many people have felt during the coronavirus pandemic is much more difficult to handle.
“The uncertainty that we are worrying about has to do with our safety and the safety of our loved ones,” says Melinda Massoff, PhD, a psychologist. “We don’t know how long the COVID-19 crisis is going to last and we are uncertain about who will get sick and who will recover and who will need to be hospitalized. These unknowns are too big and scary to process.”
Uncertainty is a major cause of stress
Uncertainty interrupts our ability to plan for the future. Normally, our brains make decisions for the future based on our past experiences. When the future is uncertain or we’re experiencing something new, we can’t rely on past experiences to inform our decision-making.
Without that tool, we can become anxious about what the future might hold, running through various scenarios and worrying about them.
“Our mind likes to plan for the future using our knowledge of our past experiences to anticipate what our future will hold,” says Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O. “Fear of the unknown causes our mind to worry about the anticipation of the future threat.”
Fear of the unknown can trigger the physiological state of stress, says Patel-Dunn. Stress, which often activates our fight-or-flight response, results in physical changes like hormone surges and an increased heart rate. Over time, chronic stress can have a negative impact on your health, increasing risk for cardiovascular disease and memory loss.
“If you are constantly aware and preparing for uncertainty and potential bad events, and thus are constantly in fight-or-flight mode, you build up a chronic stress pattern and make yourself more prone to fear and anxiety,” says Rebecca Sinclair, Ph.D., a psychologist.
Scientists study the “intolerance of uncertainty”— or the negative beliefs that people have about uncertainty, which can lead to unhealthy emotional or behavioral reactions when uncertainty inevitably presents itself.
Low tolerance of uncertainty has been associated with mental health conditions like depression, generalized anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder ( OCD). Higher tolerance of uncertainty, on the other hand, can decrease stress levels, because people are not fixating about uncertainties that are out of their control.
How to deal with uncertainty
There is only so much you can control in life. Unexpected events will occur, and when they do, there are a few ways you can prepare to face uncertainty:
- Build your tolerance. We navigate uncertainty every day, like driving to work when we might not make it there safely. Acknowledging these every day uncertainties that we usually gloss over — and focusing on the fact that you still went about your life — can build your tolerance for more significant uncertainties, says Gertrude Lyons, Ed.D., a psychologist. If uncertainty is causing anxiety or depression, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help build your tolerance and reduce stress or worry.
- Practice mindfulness. A 2008 study of people who were unemployed found that mindfulness reduced suffering caused by uncertainty. Lyons recommends this approach: go through each of your five senses, focusing on three sensations you’re experiencing. For example, what are three things you can feel right now? Three things you hear? When you start worrying about the uncertainties of the world, you can interrupt your thoughts with this routine. It can help ground you in the present moment and the certainties that do surround you.
- Follow a schedule. The physiological consequences of stress can cause changes to your sleep and eating patterns. To counteract that, sticking to a schedule, including going to bed at the same time each day, is important during uncertain times, says Patel-Dunn. Having this routine can also give you a much-needed sense of structure and control when you’re otherwise lacking it.
- Let go and focus on things you can control. “An unwillingness to experience anxiety or an intolerance to anxiety can often lead to additional suffering,” Sinclair says. “That’s what we see now with people constantly googling, checking the news, or stockpiling supplies: it’s trying to fight uncertainty in ways that ultimately increase anxiety or create cultures of fear.” Instead, step back, unplug and focus on the things you can control — like your work, family time, and daily routine.
Accepting uncertainty is key to your mental health
It’s healthier to accept uncertainty during big changes, just like we do in our normal day-to-day lives. And even though life’s unexpected twists and turns may not always seem positive, it’s important to be realistic about how much control you really have.
“Acceptance can be thought of as the opposite of denial,” Sinclair says. “We don’t want uncertainty, and yet it’s part of our lives. Acceptance is saying ‘I’m willing to experience this uncertainty and accept it as part of my life,’ not that I like it.”
Moreover, Lyons emphasises that acceptance doesn’t mean giving up — and it can even help you move forward during scary events like the coronavirus pandemic.
“Acceptance is an active, empowered state in which you are grounded in the present,” Lyons says. “We are not denying the situation and we are not indulging in the emotions of it. Acceptance of the pandemic and social isolation for an unknown period of time as my current reality allows me to more effectively ascertain the options available to me.”
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