By Dayna Mason

None of us knows for sure what the future holds for ourselves, our families, or our world, through and beyond this pandemic. Most of us, if not all, on some level and for different reasons are afraid. But history shows that humans are resilient. The probability is extremely high that we will weather this storm and get to the other side. In other words, we are going to be okay. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at this fear and how we can manage it.

Intolerance of uncertainty

According to research fear of the unknown is the fundamental human fear that is the foundation of all other fears. And, never in our lifetime have we been in such a state of global uncertainty.

Studies suggest that knowing for certain what to expect reduces anxiety even when the outcome is negative. One study of anxiety triggered by bus transportation delays found that displaying wait times significantly reduced frustration even when those times were long. Removing uncertainty made commuters feel better.

While being unsure about the outcome of something negative can make us feel worse, being unsure is not all bad. For example, waiting to learn if we got our dream job, can make us feel exhilarated with anticipation.

We all have different levels of tolerance for the unknown. It’s normal to feel some anxiety when things are uncertain. It’s our natural survival response to protect us from potential threats. But, the more we need to be in control of our circumstances, the more we struggle when outcomes are uncertain and we attempt to prepare for the future by worrying.

Worry is our attempt to gain certainty.

Many studies conducted on problem solving indicate that the more we worry, the less confident we feel about our ability to solve our problem and the worse our solutions tend to be. Anxiety caused by excessive worrying triggers the outpouring of stress hormones and not only suppresses the immune system but can result in many other serious physical conditions such as memory loss and heart disease.

Worry is not helpful or good for us.

Managing uncertainty

Here are some ideas to help manage our need to know the future.

Focus on now. When we worry, we are creating an undesirable story about something that isn’t happening. Our thoughts are in the future. One way to interrupt worry is to shift our focus to now. What is happening now. What are my circumstances now?

We can also set a time limit on our worry to appease our need to ponder our uncertainty while reducing our anxiety. For example, if our thoughts drift to future scenarios that cause us distress, we can acknowledge we are speculating and say to ourselves, “Okay, you have 15 minutes to think about this and then you have to do something else.” Then ask, “What other outcomes are possible? What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? The best possible thing that could happen? The most realistic?

We can set a time limit on following the news. Maybe 30-60 minutes a day. Some of us are spending most of our day consuming all the news we can find about the pandemic. It’s our way of attempting to predict the future. But it is just another way to worry and is more likely to leave us feeling more confused and frightened rather than informed.

Breathe and assess the probability. Evaluate your predictive thoughts. Make two columns on a sheet of paper and in the first column, write all the evidence that supports your assumption. In the second column write all the evidence that doesn’t support your prediction.

Go for a walk. Getting into motion is especially helpful when we are anxious. It gives our stress hormones something to do rather than attack our immune system.

Eat healthy and get a good night’s sleep. This is obvious, but more important than we may give it credit for. When our body is functioning properly, it’s less likely to trigger negative emotions, which means we consistently feel better regardless of our circumstances.

Acknowledge our fear. It’s okay to feel anxious or afraid. Science tells us the healthiest thing we can do is recognize this fear and say, “I feel anxious.” Or “I’m afraid.” We don’t have to act on that fear. Simply acknowledging it helps dissipate the emotion.

Accept our reality. Resisting what is so doesn’t change our reality, it simply causes us more stress. We must accept that what is happening, is happening. Once we accept the reality of our situation, we can make a decision about what, if anything, we want to do about it.

Let’s be gentle with ourselves and each other. We are all suffering in our own unique ways.

Our ability to weather periods of uncertainty is a sign of a healthy, resilient mind. And, since you and I are still here, unless we’ve been living in a bubble, chances are that we’ve both been through some things, so the odds are in our favor that we will get through this as well.

 

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