It was March 13, 2020. My 43rd birthday, and the day the world changed for all of us. The kids were told they would be out of school for two weeks. As you know, those “two weeks” turned into almost two years of uncertain times with the coronavirus pandemic.
Our senses were heightened. Stress levels were at an all-time high. Fear was winning. And one of the most significant contributing factors? The uncertainty of it all. Uncertainty about health, work, whether the kids would go back to school, what the mandates would require, how we were going to survive, where we would live, whether we should travel, what this would mean for our jobs, income, family, and of course, whether we should wash our bananas (turns out, that’s unnecessary).
Why Is Dealing With Uncertainty So Stressful?
“Uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way. When certainty is questioned, your lizard brain goes haywire, instantly kicking you in the pants to spur you to action and get you to safety.” 
I remember when my twins went to Catalina Island on a school trip in 5th grade. One of them had just been sick, and the other was in an arm brace. I worried the whole time, wondering if they could sleep, what they would eat, if they missed home…What if something awful happened? I stressed for three days, only to have them come home and tell me about the most fantastic trip they have ever had. My feelings of concern quickly turned to relief, but the uncertainty and fear during their absence were palpable.
Just because something is uncertain doesn’t mean we are unsafe, even if it feels that way. Therefore, the question becomes, what are the practical things you can do to deal with uncertainty and take control back?
How to Cope With Uncertainty?
Some of us are more naturally comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity, while others feel anxious and overwhelmed in these situations. Whether you are dealing with uncertainty around the pandemic, the economy, the health of yourself and loved ones, finances, relationships, career, or family, here are 11 ways to bring you PEACE OF MIND.
Take a step back from all your fears and worries to gain perspective. Remember, things are never as bad as you think. That story you’ve conjured up in your mind is likely never going to happen. Here are a few ways to get perspective.
Look at your situation as a neutral observer. Imagine you’re watching a reality tv show about your life. What insights or advice would you give yourself? When you step back and look from a bit of a distance, it often leads to insights or solutions you hadn’t yet considered.
You can also find perspective by grounding in what is important to you and your values. As I was writing this article, my 10-year-old daughter had a friend over. I was talking with them about how they deal with uncertainty. Her friend thought for a few minutes and replied, “I used to feel uncertain about if people liked me. I would worry and stress about it all the time. Then I realized that I like myself. And if I like me, then hopefully they like me too. And if they don’t like me, they’re probably not someone who I want to be friends with anyway.”
Clearly, she is a young lady with great perspective. Take the time to become clear on what’s important to you. That way, when things feel uncertain, you can hold on tight to the important things, and the rest won’t feel as stressful.
You can also get perspective by tapping into your personal belief system. One of my strongest held beliefs is that everything happens for a reason and that everything is happening for our greatest good. Even if I can’t see it at the time. This belief has been one of the most significant sources of peace of mind when I’ve faced uncertainty.
Dig down deep and bring it up. There’s power that comes when you allow what is happening at an unconscious level to come to the surface. When you feel fear around uncertainty, often you don’t even know what the fear is.
“Name it to tame it” is a term coined by doctor and author Dan Siegel to identify what happens in your brain when you use the “thinking or rational” part of your brain to calm the “emotional or limbic” part of your brain.
“Affect labeling” (putting feelings into words) diminishes the response of the amygdala (region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes), thereby diminishing emotional reactivity.
Put simply, when you write, talk, journal, or express how you feel, it lessens the power your emotions have over you. Sometimes this takes a little digging.
For example, you’re feeling uncertain about applying for a new job. Ask yourself why. You might respond that it’s because you don’t know if it will pay enough. But don’t take the first answer; dig a little deeper. Ask yourself, what else? You might realize you’re not as concerned about the money as you are about if you can do the job. Don’t stop there; ask again. What else? Perhaps you’ve lost some confidence, and you don’t feel in a good space to take on something new. Ask again…until you get to the real answer – the deepest worry. Then, and only then, can you feel better, as you know what’s really going on and can face it head-on.
You can learn more about this approach here: How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem
Acceptance isn’t about giving up and feeling defeated. It’s about coming to terms and acknowledging the reality of your situation. When you accept that things are uncertain, you can move on from wishing things were different, and deal with what is right in front of you.
Case in point: I have three daughters in school during this pandemic. The rules at school are constantly evolving. I’m often left wondering if they’ll be at school next week, what might change, or if someone in class will get Covid and they’ll all be sent home to resume distance learning. I was spending a lot of time and energy worrying about the uncertainty. Now, I have come to accept it as part of our new normal. I know things will change. I know things could happen. But instead of worrying about it, I am consciously opting to move on with our lives until more information becomes available.
One study found that knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing that you will be shocked. Subjects who had a 50 percent chance of receiving a shock were the most stressed while 0 percent and 100 percent chances were the least stressed. So, if you 100% know things are uncertain, you can be more comfortable in that place.
My dad has always told us kids that the gap between happiness and unhappiness lies within our expectations. If you expect things to be certain, predictable, and stable, you will always be unhappy when they aren’t. If you expect things to be unpredictable and change often, you won’t be so stressed when it happens.
Yes, you read that right. Play out the worst-case scenario. Sometimes your mind makes up all these crazy things that could go wrong. Most of which will never happen or even in the realm of possibility. But when you play out the worst-case scenario and get clear on how you would handle it, you’ll feel more comfortable.
Consider: Do you have the tools, skills, and support to deal with that outcome? Who could help you? We live in southern California, where we have to be ready at any time for earthquakes, fire, and other catastrophes. It is wise to be prepared. If you can handle the worst-case scenario, you can handle anything.
As you play out the worst-case scenario, ask yourself if it is possible (may happen, but not likely), plausible (could likely happen) or probable (very likely to happen). Most of the things you’re worried about likely fall into the possible category. By asking yourself the odds of this really happening, you are bringing yourself back into the logical part of your brain.
Once you’ve catastrophized, then it’s time to flip the switch. It’s time to play out the BEST-case scenario. Life Coach Jenn Perell calls this activity “Opposite Outrageous” – where you play out the absolute best things that could happen.
So, if your current thought is, “I am never going to be able to give this presentation. I am not prepared. I don’t know what questions they are going to ask me. I’m going to make a fool of myself. I might even get fired.” Instead, you might tell yourself, “I am going to nail this presentation. I am so ready. I am going to be able to answer every single question with confidence. In fact, they’ll probably give me a raise!”. Why have ridiculously bad thoughts about situations when we could have ridiculously good ones?
E: Examine Your Level of Control
In every situation, there are elements within your control and things that are not. However, we are often so focused on external out-of-control factors that it feels like everything is out of control. But there is a lot you can control.
For example, if you are in a rough patch with your partner and you’re wondering what is going to happen with your relationship, focus on what you do know to be true in other aspects of your life. You have a stable income. You love your job. You have a great support system. You have made it through 100% of your bad days and break-ups so far. Focus on what you know to be true. Focus on what is staying the same. Focus on what IS certain.
Often, this is also about controlling your reaction, feelings, and attitude. My favorite quote about this is in Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust.
“Everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If Frankl can find something to control when faced with those treacherous and unfathomable circumstances so far out of his control, so can we.
O: Open Up
Talk to someone about your fears and concerns, hopes and dreams. A problem shared is a problem halved. Studies have shown that simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing – reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing physical and emotional distress.
Many people don’t want to share because they don’t want to be a burden to others. I hear ya, but let me ask you a question. How would you feel if your best friend, partner, or kid was suffering in silence and didn’t want to tell you because they didn’t want to burden you? My guess? You would want them to share. Take the chance. Not only will you feel better, but it will bring you closer. Don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to? Find a good therapist, coach, or talk to your doctor.
F: Focus on the Present
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” — Lao Tzu
Be. Here. Now. Find a way to be present.
Perhaps you’re worried about something happening to someone you love. Be grateful at the moment with them. Take the time to show how much you love them. Say what you want to say. Appreciate every little moment you have together. If you can be grateful and focus on the present moment, you will feel more comfortable in the face of uncertainty.
You knew this was coming, right? Meditation helps to bring your nervous system from a sympathetic (fight or flight) state to a parasympathetic (rest and digest state). This calms your body and allows you to feel safer and more at peace.
Don’t feel like meditating? Try grounding yourself by walking barefoot on the soil, beach, or grass.
Still not convinced? Just Breathe. Deep breathing increases circulation by bringing oxygen to your muscles and brain. It promotes a state of calmness and quiets your mind. What happened when you started to read this paragraph? Did you take a deep breath? Great, you should be feeling much better.
I: Initiate Action
Sitting in uncertainty only makes it worse. You don’t know what will happen until you DO something, and you see what happens next.
When you stand at the edge of something; waiting, wondering, worrying if you can do it, you lose confidence. Your fears creep in, and you begin to doubt yourself.
But when you take a leap of faith, jump in, and get started, your confidence immediately builds. You push your boundaries. You learn you can do it.
Action builds trust, and each step you take builds it further. An incredible thing about the human brain is that once it realizes something is working, it will keep that momentum going. Yes, it is scary to move forward, especially into the unknown, but your action will conquer fear and build confidence and strength. When you act, focus on the first step you can take.
Not sure about something, ask a question. As a leadership and team development consultant, I’ve worked with thousands of individuals who must work with ambiguity and a lack of clarity. This is often due to a company restructure, new boss, M&A’s, or just lack of information.
Once I was running a workshop where one of the participants shared that he was concerned he didn’t have the information he needed to finish a project. He wondered why he hadn’t received it and voiced that having to work without this information was stressful. A woman across the table quickly replied, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you needed that; I have it; why didn’t you just ask for it?” That thing he was so uncertain about? He had it an hour later.
I’m currently working with a company where there is a merger happening. There is a lot of uncertainty, and people are concerned about what it means for their jobs, careers, and families. To support the process, leadership held a town hall where team members could ask all of their pressing questions. Do they still have uncertainty, yes? Does having a little more information and clarity help? Always. Perhaps you can ask a simple question to alleviate some of your uncertainty – or all of it!
Just make the decision. You will never have enough information to feel 100% confident or ready. There will always be some level of uncertainty to deal with. Decide to do it anyway.
I have a good friend that has been dying to go to Hawaii for years. Her husband is in the film industry, and his schedule is highly unpredictable. Every time they think about planning a trip, they stop because they don’t know if he’ll be available and they don’t want to book it “just in case” he’s needed last minute.
But guess what? It’s now been 10 years. Have they gone to Hawaii? No. Might they have had to cancel a trip? Probably. But sometime along the way, could they have gone and experienced a life-changing vacation? I’m going to guess yes.
You can let the uncertainty stop you, or you can push through it and decide anyway. For example, my stepmom and Dad have planned a trip to Israel later this year. Will they go with everything going on? Who knows! But they weren’t going to let that stop them from the possibility of going. Instead, they planned it, bought the insurance, and will change things if necessary.
What have you been putting off just in case something happens? What can you decide on, move forward, and change if needed?
Peace Of Mind
Like with everything in life, there is no one size fits all approach. Some times of uncertainty are more painful, scary, and overwhelming than others, and some of these strategies will work better in different situations.
Applying for a new role or worrying about a big presentation is very different from wondering if you’re going to find a life partner, moving across the world, or awaiting your fate about a medical diagnosis.
Identify which of these strategies feel best to you and try them! They only work if you do.
Good luck and remember; things are rarely as bad as you imagine them to be, and the future is always brighter than it appears.
Featured photo credit: Molnár Bálint via unsplash.com
|Psychology Today: Why Uncertainty Freaks You Out
|PubMed: Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli
|Science Daily: Uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain
|Psychology Today: Why Talking About Our Problems Makes Us Feel Better