Coping with Uncertainty

Mother with kids running around during homeschool trying to deal with uncertainty in the pandemic in Pennsylvania

These are challenging times.

Who would have thought that almost overnight, our everyday lives would have so drastically changed? While not all of the changes have been negative, take the environment, for example, but the stress on our working lives and the economy cannot be denied. As human beings, we tend to react negatively to the unknown.

Uncertainty is hard to adapt to in an evolutionary sense because it is hard for us to know how best to prepare.

Do I need supplies for two weeks or six months? Will my job be there when this all over? Such uncertainty is experienced as a threat and activates primitive emotional systems in our brains that evolved over time to keep us safe. In a sense, we are operating in the modern world with antiquated hardware. We are no longer scanning for tigers in the savannas (generally speaking) but coping with a rapidly changing modern environment saturated with information designed to activate the fear signaling circuits in our mammalian brains.

So, given that we are living through an event that may as well have designed to create anxiety, how best to cope?

Here are some suggestions for effectively weather uncertainty:

  • Try to maintain some kind of regular schedule. Eat breakfast, exercise, read, etc. following a predictable routine. Routines make the unpredictable more predictable, and thus safer. When children experience a disaster, for example, they are comforted by a return to predictable behavior. You don’t have to pretend you are at the office, but having a loose structure can help.
  • Reach out to social contacts and friends. Call family members and reconnect with people you haven’t talked to in a while. Humans are social animals and benefit from interaction with other humans.  We are essentially “wired for social connection.” This does not mean that you have to become a social butterfly but try to avoid isolation.
  • Limit your exposure to news and commentary about the pandemic. Like in the aftermath of 9/11, the 24-hour news industry has filled the airways with information of varying quality. Remember that news producers know full well that engaging their audience through activation of the primitive fear/alert systems in our brains is a sure way to keep us engaged.
  • Engage in moderate cardiovascular exercise. There is a lot of research that suggests that moderate cardiovascular exercise is related to lower levels of stress and a greater sense of self-efficacy. You don’t have to train for a marathon, but 15-30 minutes of exercise that elevates your heart rate can be an excellent strategy assuming that your doctor has not limited your activity for health reasons. Bodyweight routines or walking are good examples and there are many free workouts posted on line.
  • Take up mindfulness meditation. Again, there is an emerging body of research linking mindfulness meditation to decreased stress, improved focus, and increased self-fficacy. Smartphone apps such as HeadspaceCalm, and Mindfulness Coach (which is available for free from the Veterans Administration) can walk you through the process of learning to meditate.
  • Finally, exercise self-compassion. Accept that you may be under a great deal of stress and that a wide range of feelings are normal and acceptable

I hope some of these suggestions are helpful. As always, I am happy to consult with you if you have questions or would like support. Be safe and well.

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