Uncertainty is a part of our lives at any moment, but when it comes to 2020, so far it may be the defining trend of the year. Given what life keeps throwing our way individually and as a collective society, chances are you have been exposed to the advice to “embrace uncertainty.” Psychotherapists say that embracing uncertainty can help you constructively cope when things seem unpredictable, allowing you to move forward rather than drowning in anxiety.
“The brain likes to predict things. That makes us feel safe,” explains somatic (body-centered) psychotherapist Tara Topper. “So when most things are thrown up in the air and have to be dealt with in a way that’s new, it’s overwhelming.”
Not surprisingly, research suggests that people with lower “uncertainty tolerance” can fall prey to emotional exhaustion. On the other hand, those with a higher tolerance for uncertainty are more likely to adapt and also report less stress. “Instead of fighting something, we know from research that if you accept it, it helps you cope better, decreases the body’s stress response, and improves depression and anxiety,” says Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University and psychiatrist at Silicon Valley Executive Psychiatry.
If uncertainty is causing you to excessively worry, avoid situations, and spend more time than you’d like planning and double- (or triple-) checking things, consider opening your mind and embracing that uncertainty with the following pro tips.
Be aware. The first step to change is to notice when you do things to avoid uncertainty. You may find yourself spending hours online researching something, putting off a task, seeking reassurance from others, or checking things over and over. When you recognize that you’re doing any of those behaviors, stop and acknowledge that you are trying to protect yourself by avoiding uncertainty.
Sit with the discomfort. Rather than doing your typical habit, find the courage to face your feelings. “A lot of times what causes anxiety or depression is we had something bad happen to us [in the past], but we couldn’t fix it through our own power. If we don’t have the help or resources to deal with those events, the pain can stay stuck and we may disconnect from it,” Topper explains.
She recommends stopping, pausing, and sitting with that discomfort so that you can process those feelings. To help, tune into the sensations in your body—where do you feel buzzing, tingling, radiating, warmth, coolness, etc—and make room to feel those sensations.
Recall past successes. As you challenge yourself to embrace uncertainty, if you feel tempted to use your old coping strategy, pause and think about times in the past when you successfully faced uncertainty. Or if this is new to you, reflect upon times when you experienced a challenge and overcame it. What helped then that might help you now?
Focus on what you can control. Rather than attempting to up-end your life and go all-in on uncertainty, focus on one thing at a time. “What do I have control over today?” Topper says. For example, you can’t make other people wear a face mask. But you can choose where and when to go out in public so that you are more likely to avoid crowds and be able to maintain social distancing.
Lean on mindfulness. A key component of mindfulness practices is focusing on the present moment. You don’t ruminate on the past, nor do you worry about the future. Instead, you try to be as fully in the moment as you can be. Consider bringing your attention to your breath or trying to notice what all five senses are taking in right now.
Accept that this is hard. “Especially for those of us whose nervous systems thrive on predictability and structure, [embracing uncertainty] sucks,” Topper says. “Try to deal with what is in front of you today so it doesn’t feel like an unending, overwhelming thing.” That’s particularly useful right now when things are changing day-to-day.
Be patient. “The most important thing you can do as you embrace uncertainty is to be patient with yourself,” Vasan says. “It can be very uncomfortable, but self-compassion will give you the ability to take on the challenging time ahead. While we can’t be certain what is ahead, being kind to yourself and investing in self-care is the best way you can keep yourself healthy.”
A reminder that mental health is as important as physical health! Continue staying safe and healthy everyone!