How to function in times of uncertainty
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Your brain hates uncertainty. But the good news is that you can do something to get to the other side of ambiguity (at least for a little while).

This has been a year marred by deep and all-encompassing uncertainty. More than three-quarters of a year into a global pandemic, none of us can be sure when – or if – life will go back to normal. We don’t know how, or whether, the world’s economy will bounce back. And in the United States, after one of the most bitter political contests in memory, we’re not entirely sure who’s been elected president.

In short, there’s very little we can be certain about, and that can feed a lot of fear. The brain, after all, is designed to react negatively to uncertainty. Evolutionarily speaking, the more information we have at our disposal, the safer we feel, especially when it’s information about something that poses a threat to our wellbeing.

“We’re wired to worry,” says Margaret Cochran, a psychotherapist based in San Jose, California. “It’s a survival mechanism; our brains have not evolved much over the last 10,000 years, and we still need to remember where the tiger is more than we need to remember where the blueberries are.”

The highly consequential 2020 US presidential election didn't yield an immediate winner, compounding the uncertainty that already colours the next four years in the country

The highly consequential 2020 US presidential election didn't yield an immediate winner, compounding the uncertainty that already colours the next four years in the country

Worry, especially the kind that accompanies a drawn-out period of extreme uncertainty, can have physical ramifications. “Our fight-or-flight response gets activated,” says Cochran. “Then we end up with a whole lot of chemicals in the system.” It’s supposed to be a short-term reaction: once the threat is gone, the brain chemicals released by fear return to normal. But “the uncertainty we’re currently experiencing is not a tiger we can run from”, adds Cochran, “so it goes on day after day and our bodies are full of cortisone and adrenaline”. And that’s not great news, since disproportionate levels of those stress hormones can contribute to high blood pressure, obesity and more.

We’re wired to worry - Margaret Cochran

Of course, says Connecticut-based psychologist Roseanne Capanna-Hodge, the most obvious impacts of uncertainty are mental. “Right now, we all feel such a loss of control,” she says. “Between Covid, all the changes we’ve experienced in recent months… Change, good or bad, makes people really uncomfortable. The majority of people don’t do well with change.”

So, if the precariousness of our present situation has sent you reeling, you’re definitely not alone. But, as helpless as you may feel, the good news is that you can get better at facing the unknown, using these dos and don’ts for dealing with uncertainty.

Don’t: Look too far ahead (or behind)

When you begin to worry, says Ryan Jane Jacoby, a staff psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, you can fall into a rabbit hole of perseverative thinking, mulling the negatives over and over in your mind.

“You’re trying to problem solve in the past, or trying to predict what’s going to happen in the future,” she says. “It’s not that either of those are inherently bad – it does make sense to sometimes pull apart what went wrong, or prepare for what’ll happen – but the mental load of that worry and rumination can get exhausting.”

Jacoby adds that data suggests the amount of ruminating on the past and worrying about the future people do is tied to the onset and duration of depression and anxiety. The more you let those thoughts fester, the more likely you are to develop those conditions, and the longer they’re likely to last.

Worrying about things that are too far in the future to predict with any accuracy – like the success or failure of whoever becomes US president over the next four years, or the development and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine – doesn’t have any cognitive benefits. Instead, Jacoby says, those concerns should get deferred. “We start trying to make plans or prepare for things that are too far down the road,” she says. “Instead, use worry postponement: tell yourself, ‘I can’t make this decision now, I’ll think about it in X-number of weeks’, and commit to tolerating the uncertainty until then.”

Restrictions are back in places like Krakow, Poland as Covid-19 second wave uncertainties and fears begin to grow

Restrictions are back in places like Krakow, Poland as Covid-19 second wave uncertainties and fears begin to grow

Do: Keep busy in the short term

Rather than focusing on an uncertain future, bring yourself back to the present. Mindfulness practices and meditation can be helpful, as can re-directing your attention.

“Absorbing activities keep you immersed in the here-and-now,” says Jacoby. Choose things that are not routine for you, and that require all of your concentration – things like painting, puzzling, playing music or a challenging physical activity like climbing or skiing.

“As far as anxiety and panic, the most comforting things to do are things with your hands,” says Cochran. “It can have a hypnotic effect on the brain, when it’s busy thinking, ‘knit one, purl two’, over and over. You calm down, stop thinking about other things and focus on what you’re doing. Colouring does that, and even copying things longhand can help. If you’re in really bad shape, open a book and start copying and see what happens.”

Don’t: Imagine all the worst-case scenarios

Often, a desire to be prepared for all possible negative outcomes can turn into “hyper-certainty that things will be bad”, says Jacoby. That kind of pessimistic mindset, common in people with depression, “is an interesting way to manage uncertainty. People start to feel like presuming the worst is easier to manage than not knowing, but it certainly isn’t healthier.”

It’s easy to get caught up in all the things that might go wrong. Again, we have an evolutionary imperative to recognise and avoid danger. But it’s important, says Capanna-Hodge, to “recognize the catastrophising. Then think about what can you do in that moment to break the pattern and start shifting your thinking. Have some tea, go for a walk.”

Experts suggest that to deal with uncertainty, lose yourself in activities that require all your concentration, like painting or playing with puzzles

Experts suggest that to deal with uncertainty, lose yourself in activities that require all your concentration, like painting or playing with puzzles

Do: Try to up your optimism

Instead, try to adopt an optimistic view of the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean assuming only good things will happen (a recipe for near-certain disappointment), but that, whatever does happen, you’ll be OK.

You can start fostering optimism by altering your self-talk, says Cochran. “If we’re constantly saying to ourselves, ‘Ugh, this is awful, I don’t know how I’ll get through this, everything I know and cherish is over’, that’s what we’ll have. If you talk to yourself like, ‘OK, I don’t know how this will go, but one way or another I’ll find a way through’, you can manifest a positive mentality.”

And positivity begets resilience. The role of optimism in developing a resiliency mindset is dramatic, says Capanna-Hodge. “We know through research that if you’re a person who views things positively, you have a lower rate of anxiety and depression, and a greater sense of control.”

Don’t: Try to reason away uncertainty

If you recognise that you’re having a hard time dealing with uncertain circumstances, it’s natural to try to reason away your discomfort by seeking more information. If you’re anxious about the emerging “second wave” of Covid-19, for instance, you might try to reason away those fears by looking at case numbers and statistics.

But avoid the temptation – not only because you could wind up in a hole that makes everything worse, but also since reasoning away your fears isn’t a sustainable solution, even if you might get a temporary jolt of calm.

“Someone who’s been anxious about the election might’ve been constantly looking at polls to try to feel like, ‘OK, this is going to work out,’” says Jacoby. Unfortunately, the strategy “tends to backfire. The problem is that trying to reason it away will only work temporarily, if at all, because there’s still a lingering ‘what if’”.

Do: Embrace the unknown

The best way to handle uncertainty is to try to get comfortable with it. Consider it exposure therapy: the more you’re able to “sit with it, rather than trying to fix it”, says Jacoby, “the more you learn you can handle it”.

And you do have to handle it – we all do – because things don’t seem to be getting any less ambiguous, anytime soon. “The only certainty in the universe is change,” says Cochran. “To fight it is unproductive and destructive. If there’s a big windstorm, trees that bend and flex survive. The trees that don’t bend crack and fall down and die. Human beings are the same.”

Things may seem out of control – and in the grand scheme of things, maybe they are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t regain command of your own life.

“We can’t control politics. We can’t control the weather,” says Capanna-Hodge. “We can’t control traffic. The pandemic is continuing, and we can’t control that, either. But we can control the thoughts we have, who’s in our life and what we hear and see. We do have a lot of control, and we need to start focusing on that.”

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