Coping with Uncertainty
Coping with Uncertainty in Today’s World
By: Yessica Ocampo, MA
“Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life” (Weber, 2020), but in this time of COVID, it’s magnified as we move through uncertainty in every aspect of life, including
- Physical health
- Emotional health
There is no doubt our tolerance of uncertainty varies significantly by individuals. While some of us crave adventure and new experiences, others feel anxious and powerless at the thought of ‘what-ifs.’ In today’s world COVID has magnified the unpredictability of life and the speed at which situations change.
Leaving many striving to
- prepare for the worst
- sticking to our typical/predictable
- avoidance of anything we believe may have a negative/uncertain consequence.
All of which can leave you in a constant of worry and arousal. Now worrying is not all bad as it is essentially the ability to ‘think ahead,’ affording us to predict and plan for obstacles that may arise. However, when thinking ahead leaves us exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious, this may impede our ability to cope and impede practical problem-solving.
When we think about what worry feels like, it is often described as feeling like a chain of thoughts and images. These thoughts and pictures usually progress in severity and intensity, leading to improbable situations and outcomes. These worst-case scenarios often escalate quickly and can lead to physical symptoms such as:
- Feeling easily fatigued
- Restlessness or inability to relax
- Difficulties with sleep, difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Muscular aches and pain.
We know the physical symptoms of worry will most often escalate our distress and lead us in what feels like an endless loop. But in times where uncertainty is everywhere, how can you tell when worry is a problem?
Healthy or Excessive?
Everyone worries to some extent, but if you are left demoralized and exhausted, this may be a sign of excessive worry.
Points to consider include:
- The content of the worry. It’s healthy and normal to worry about relationships, health, work, finances, family, and school, so let’s look at other indicators to help us distinguish between healthy and excessive worry.
- The likelihood and timescale of your worry. Healthy worry is often triggered by likely and relevant ‘right now’ events. Excessive worry is focused on unlikely events or those based on far into the future.
- Timing, healthy worry is often a response to a specific event; excessive worry is constant, not responsive to one particular event or situation.
- How in control we feel over worry is also very telling. Healthy worry feels somewhat in control, whereas excessive worry feels uncontrollable and is consuming.
- The duration. Spending much or most of your time worrying can indicate a problem with excessive worry.
Suppose you find yourself in the realm of excessive worry. In that case, learning how to distinguish ‘right now worries’ and ‘hypothetical worries’ is a significant first step. The ability to determine ‘right now worries’ from ‘hypothetical worries’ will aid in decreasing your distress.
Right Now Worry vs. Hypothetical Worry
A ‘right now worry’ is a problem that requires an immediate solution; these problems are affecting you right now. A ‘hypothetical worry’ is a worst-case scenario that is not currently occurring and does not require an immediate solution. These problems do not exist (right now) but might happen in the future.
Now that we have an understanding of ‘right now’ and ‘hypothetical’ worry we can move forward with coping with the worry.
- Notice and acknowledge the worry. Worry brings up unpleasant thoughts and feelings, which lead to avoidance and eventually getting stuck in a worry chain in which leads us to increasingly distressful thoughts and worst-case scenarios. Noticing and acknowledging our thoughts does not mean we are ‘giving in’ to them, nor does it make them go away. The goal is to face the worry.
- Distinguish ‘right now’ worries from ‘hypothetical’ worries. Distinguish between right now and hypothetical worries. The ability to focus on ‘right now worries’ allows us to manage to worry effectively and afford solution-focused thinking.
- Practice self-compassion. Worry often leaves us responding with negative and upsetting thoughts. The practice of responding to them with compassion for ourselves and others allows us to take on a varied perspective and possibility find new ways to address them.
- Practice postponing your worry. Worry brings us to a state of urgency, leaving us feeling obligated to engage with it insistently. Postponing hypothetical worries help shape our relationship with worry. Having a planned time to worry allows us to better manage the rest of the day by letting go of the worry until your designated time.
- Maintain Balance. Finding a balance of activities that afford you feelings of pleasure, connection, and achievement is key to a healthy and rewarding life. Psychologists suggest finding activities that bring you pleasure, opportunities to be physically active, and connecting with others bring about balance in life. Finding ways to continue to engage in these activities may take creativity and purposeful planning, but the benefits are well worth it.
Tidbits to remember
- Feelings of worry and anxiety are normal.
- The emotions themselves are not always the issue. The response to our emotions is what matters.
- Focus on actions you can control; your actions, your effort, your behaviors, etc.
- Not all coping skills are healthy long-term options. Many of our coping skills are great in the short term but unsustainable. Find ways to incorporate sustainable self-care routines, including social connections, movement, healthy nutrition, and sleep.
- Build your tolerance for uncertainty. Take a new route on your daily walk, order something new next time you eat/order out or sit in a new spot at the table during meals.
Dealing with Uncertainty – HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/dealing-with-uncertainty.htm