Learning To Live With Uncertainty

The global COVID pandemic has disrupted our normality and we’re all having to adjust routines and expectations. Our uncertainty about what tomorrow and the next day might bring is now heightened. This is perhaps something we might be able to cope with if we have a good grasp on our own resilience, but it can also cause an increase in anxiety.

FEEL Collaborative is all about helping women find the inspiration they need to thrive in their daily lives. Learning to cope with the unknown and not let uncertainty introduce fear into our lives is one way we can look after ourselves.

We know that there has been a spike in both men and women experiencing disturbances to their mental and emotional balance as a result of the stress of not knowing and not being able to plan for the future with any certainty. We also know that it is important to be on top of your own self-care in these uncertain times.

The fear of uncertainty

If you have a problem tolerating even small amounts of uncertainty, then you also have a tendency to worry as a way of preparing to face the unknown. This is a form of anxiety that many of us learn to live with because we think it’s helpful. Worrying becomes a way of trying to second guess what might happen “next” as a way of calming our fear of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Worrying about things we can’t control or predict about the future actually feeds our anxiety and can cause mild emotional paralysis. Always expecting the worst is not a way of preparing it is really only avoidance. You might feel more in control in the short term but worrying won’t change the outcome. The best way you help yourself is to let go of the fear of uncertainty. Accepting that uncertainty is certainly going to be part of your life (and everybody else’s too) can help you to somewhat relax, then you can think more clearly about what you can and cannot control and direct your time and energy to that.

Psychologists have developed simple and safe ways for us to come to terms with aspects of our anxious thinking and you can use these techniques to challenge your fear and intolerance of uncertainty.

If you’re in the group of people who find uncertainty creates anxiety and fear, try this exercise by answering a few short questions.

  • Can you really be certain about everything in life?
  • Does your uncertainty lead you think that something bad is likely to happen?
  • How likely is it that the worst thing possible will actually happen?
  • What advantages do you get from demanding certainty in your life?
  • What are the disadvantages of demanding certainty in your life?
  • Is there a level of uncertainty you can live with?

In the FEEL Collaborative Uncertainty Survival Guide we go into these questions in a bit more detail and provide self-care strategies and tools that will inspire you to cope more effectively.

The certainty of uncertainty

A certain amount of uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition. We cannot know for sure what tomorrow will bring. The unexpected always arrives when you least expect it. For most of us, for most of the time, we learn to live with the known unknowns.

We are able to do this because there is, in fact, a great deal of certainty in our lives. Our day-to-day existence is built around a series of routines and this gives us a level of comfort.

We know that for most of us, on most days, we will get up at or close to the same time; we will then go through the steps of getting ourselves ready to do the things we know we are going to do on that day.

Your routine probably doesn’t vary much from day to day. If you like to get dressed before breakfast, you will most likely do that pretty much every day. If your preference is to have a cup of coffee before anything else, that is likely to be what you do most mornings.

All of this works well when times are what we used to call “normal”. There’s a level of mental and emotional stability in following a routine. We also take pleasure in the small acts of spontaneity too. Maybe a friend calls out of the blue and says “Let’s have lunch today,” and it wasn’t in your plan but it’s a nice idea and you can change your routine easily to accommodate the unexpected.

That’s how it works when things are relatively normal, but for the last six months, for most of us things have been far from normal. On a normal day you would probably get up according to your preferred routine (coffee or shower?) and then around the same time each day you would leave home and do whatever it is you do.

We were used to conducting most of our lives away from home. We’d go to work, or to school, or whatever we had scheduled for that day and we’d spend most of the day out and about. Today, we are forced to stay closer to home. Even if we’re not working from home, most of us are spending far more time at home then we normally do.

This is a further cause of stress that can be made worse if you feel “trapped” at home. If you live with other people, remember it is possible they feel the same way and perhaps you should talk with them about making space for each other – remember start from a position of kindness.

If you live by yourself, perhaps you are feeling lonely or just alone. You might like to read the FEEL Collaborative post on loneliness and being alone and download the Coping with Loneliness Survival Guide.

The bottom line, worrying might make you feel like you’re in control – after all you’re thinking about all of your problems – but it is actually making things worse. Chronic worry does not increase your ability to manage, it saps your energy and robs you of any small pleasures you might get from living in the moment.

Coping with the unknown

It takes time to turn around anxious, worrying thinking. If you’re in a chronic state of worry we suggest you seek professional help from a psychologist. If your malaise is short-term and you’re normally an optimistic person a few quick steps can get your thinking back on track and lift your mood. The idea is to practice these small exercises regularly. Doing them once is better than not doing anything, but the bigger benefit is making them part of your daily routines.

Focus on what you can control and that is usually going to be what you do and how you react to uncomfortable situations or confrontations.

Don’t stew on unhealthy emotions. Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions – anger, resentment, fear, disappointment – makes you healthier in the long run. Experts say that finding a way to acknowledge—to “sit with” – your uncomfortable thoughts will help you stay calm and in that state you will find a solution, rather than escalate your anxiety to depression or panic.

Practice being in the present moment and don’t think too far ahead. When you find your mind starts to wander and play havoc with you. Pause, then acknowledge your thoughts and  ask yourself, “Are these thoughts useful to me here and now?” and “Are they serving a purpose?”. Then find something to do that will help you to refocus for example, get up and walk around and purposely observe what is going in your immediate surroundings. This will only take a minute and it acts like a reset, giving you the opportunity to disrupt any negative or destructive thought patterns that you may be caught up in.

Accept a small challenge to stop your worrying behaviour. Worrying sometimes manifests in the way we treat other people. If you have any of the following behaviours, make a plan to notice when your doing them and step back using our simple mindfulness techniques.

  • Are you constantly seeking reassurance from other people?
  • Do you micromanage your work colleagues, friends or family members?
  • Do you put off making even small decisions?
  • Are you a constant checker?

Acceptance of uncertainty brings peace of mind. There are some day-to-day uncertainties that are constant. If you can recognise this, try adapting the same accepting open mind to some of the bigger issues that are a source of worry. Let yourself feel the anxiety, but not take hold of you. Take a moment to pause, breathe and remember that very rarely are you in a life-or-death situation.

The seemingly dark and frustrating days will pass and sometimes just surviving is the best thing to do. Remember to always have something to look forward to, even if it is just hot shower, a cup of tea or an hour with a good book.

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next Gilda Radner

You can find inspiration and self-care advice in the FEEL Collaborative Survival Guide series, free on our website.

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