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To Your Health: How to cope with uncertainty

As soon as we think we have life all figured out, it seems as if the goal posts magically move, and we must adjust. About the only thing certain in life is uncertainty. Uncertainty can cause us to feel anxious and uncomfortable. The recent worries many of us have experienced, such as those related to the COVID pandemic or proposed changes in fishing regulations, are good examples. What, if anything, can we do to reduce the anxiety caused by uncertainty and live happy lives despite an unknown future?

Photo credit: Rick Barber

We can glean some answers from research done in the field of psychology. Dr. Kate Sweeny, at the University of California, Riverside, reports that people can reduce their anxiety around uncertainty through several key practices: (1) distraction; (2) managing expectations; (3) looking for a silver lining; (4) keeping perspective, and (5) planning ahead.

Distraction is about focusing on something other than our worry. That may sound like trying to suppress our feelings or sticking our head in the sand, but it’s more about avoiding ruminating over the same negative thoughts. When we focus on a single negative detail exclusively, our vision of all of reality becomes bleak (even though it’s not).

And if it seems as if thinking about them is the only way to find a solution to problems confronting us, consider this. The anxiety that brooding over a worry over and over again generates can interfere with the ability to proceed with solutions. The best means of distracting ourselves is to engage in an activity in which we are fully engaged and immersed. That may be something like a project around the house, gardening or any healthy activity that keeps us focused.

Managing expectations has to do with managing our thinking. We may be perfectionists and expect our lives to be a certain way, or we may tell ourselves that things should be the way we hope and expect them to be. Either of these forms of thinking will likely cause us to feel anxiety.

Finding a silver lining in whatever uncertainty confronts us is an important path to feeling calmer. There are few negative events in life that don’t have some silver linings associated with them. Our job is to identify what that silver lining may be for us. Sometimes our negative thinking gets in the way and tells us that the positive doesn’t count. However, the positive is just as much a part of reality as the negative.

Keeping perspective is one of the most important things we can do to maintain a state of inner calm in the face of uncertainty. There is no shortage of ways we can lose perspective. Cognitive psychologists have helped to identify the following typical forms of thinking that lead us to lose perspective.

Planning ahead is an important strategy for taking charge of our situation. We do have to remember that there’s a difference between taking change and trying to control an outcome we may have no control over. Research on coping finds that people who prepare ahead of time for a stressful event by locating resources, finding information, and engaging in mental preparation experience fewer negative consequences.

In her paper, "Waiting Well: Tips for Navigating Painful Uncertainty," Dr. Sweeny concludes that there are a few good practices we can engage in to take care of ourselves during times of uncertainty. These include: Being kind to ourselves and engaging in self-care. Recognize that we’re all wired differently; if we tend to be more anxious than others, we don’t need to beat ourselves up over that. Instead, we can take steps to do things to care for ourselves, such as eating well, getting the right amount of sleep, exercising or doing other activities that “feed” us in some way.

Reflecting on past successes. It’s easy to lose perspective on our abilities and the successful ways we’ve coped with other past negative events. It’s helpful to recall what those were.

Limiting exposure to the news. The news loves to garner our emotional attention. That is what boosts the number of listeners and readers and in turn draws paying advertisers. We can collect the facts we need to know but avoid repeatedly exposing ourselves to the same negative information.

Taking our own advice. We can imagine what we would tell someone else to do if they presented us with our worries or concerns.

Seeking support. We can talk with others and seek their support, so we’re not left feeling alone. Seeking out counseling support can also be a great option. A trained counselor can help us learn how to avoid the pitfalls and traps in thinking as described above.

Avoiding dwelling on things we can’t control and taking charge of what we can change. This is the piece where avoiding ruminating comes into play. We can focus on those things that we are able to influence or change or prepare for, and let the rest go.

Uncertainty is part of life, or we would have figured it all out long before this. How we cope and what we do in the face of that uncertainty will determine our well-being.

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