Monday, September 14, 2020

The Stress and Anxiety of Uncertainty

Throughout the duration of COVID-19 a common expressed worry is one of "uncertainty".  Many people feel unease at the reality that the future is pretty much unknown.  We're not really sure how this will pan out, mainly because none of us who are alive have ever lived through anything like this before.  Those who have kids may have never had to home school or worry about their kids exposed to COVID in a school setting before.  Those of us out working in the world have never had to wonder when we will go back to the office, or if we will go back to the office, or if --in the end--employers will even keep the office we all once worked in.  We now all carry with us a sense of uncertainty about how long this will last, as well as uncertainty about what to believe in the mass of information that is not always what it seems. 

This chronic state of uncertainty leads to stress and anxiety that can fill us with irrational kinds of faulty thinking.  In other words, where there are no answers, we might make the mistake of filling in the unknown gap with what seems like a plausible answer.  However, if we are using faulty thinking styles, we can make cognitive errors and fill in those gaps with inaccurate and even mythological information.  

In addition, there is a difference between anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty.  With anticipatory anxiety we at least have a general idea of what it is we are afraid of and what might be coming.  We can anticipate a scenario in our mind of that feared thing and then prepare for it the best we can.  But when it comes to uncertainty, the mind draws a blank.  The new anxiety and stress is in not knowing what to even envision or prepare for.  In that case, an instinctual human system can become hypervigilant and become filled with a general sense of unease in trying to always be ready for it knows not what.

The best way to handle this general sense of uncertainty is to practice relaxation techniques as frequently as possible so that the body counters the chronic tendency to want to be tense all the time.  We can try to train our bodies to be mostly relaxed as frequently as possible, which in the end also prepares us for the best overall reaction to any stressor that eventually comes along.

Another way to cope with uncertainty is to not create expectations about how uncertainty "should" be or how we "wish" it to be in the end.  All that does is create a readiness for disappointment, which can be expressed in stressful emotions like anger, sadness, and more worry.  There is a difference between having a positive attitude--which aims for "hoping" for good outcomes--and the other option of setting oneself up for disappointment by expecting in advance that the outcome one wants or prefers will be the outcome that happens.

When you get right down to it, uncertainty means we don't know the answer.  When we don't know the answer to something our brains start searching for a way to fill in that uncomfortable gap.  We can put all kinds of things in that gap, but that does not mean that whatever we put in that gap is the correct answer.  If instead, we look at the reality of the uncertainty, we can act appropriately and decipher the most rational way to cope.  When the body is uncertain if it needs to prepare for danger, we can intervene and help it instead to feel a general sense of peace and relaxation, which also prepares it in the long run for any need to ready for danger, if necessary.

Thanks to Nguyen Thanh Lam for the great photo