If there was one word that could sum up the mood of 2020, it would probably be uncertainty. With the COVID-19 crisis overshadowing the way we live our lives, the sense of unknown feels stronger than ever. However, it’s also a pertinent reminder that global pandemic or not, nothing truly ever is certain and leaning into uncertainty and letting go of expectations is a crucial element of building a happy and healthy life.
Why do humans crave certainty?
Our desire for control is deep-rooted. In fact, our need for certainty was developed in the primitive era and is built into our biological makeup. “In the caveman era, we needed certainty as a means of survival because there were real dangers in our environment. We’re therefore primed via our neurology to want this safety and certainty,” Dr. Reena Kotecha, a doctor and mindfulness expert, explained. Of course, in the 21st century, we don’t have to worry about whether there’s a saber-toothed tiger around the corner but our brains and bodies are built to process modern uncertainties in the same way. “We’ve evolved to have one mechanism to deal with stress triggers: the sympathetic nervous system is known as the fight or flight response,” Dr. Kotecha clarified.
These stresses can quickly pile up, especially in a year like 2020 when externally everything can feel like it’s falling apart. The combination of the pandemic, polarising politics, climate change, economic downturn (the list can go on), can lead to what Dr. Kotecha calls a “bombardment of stress.” Individual problems on a micro level only intensify this further. “Often we are in sympathetic overdrive and the body mobilizes all its resources to deal with stress.”
Subsequently, being stuck in a long period of chronic overload and stress can cause mental health problems to arise.
How to deal with uncertainty
It’s not all doom and gloom though, we can learn to deal with uncertainty, and the sooner we do, the more relaxed and happier we become. The biggest lesson? Learning to accept it. While things might feel more uncertain than ever at present, things were never actually more certain before. Certainty is an illusion and as the platitude goes: the only certainty is change. “The problem isn’t the change itself but our resistance to it. Similarly, the problem isn’t uncertainty but our resistance to it,” Dr. Kotecha remarked.
Being stuck in a long period of chronic overload and stress can cause mental health problems to arise.
Instead of trying to control things and reduce uncertainty, the best course of action is working out how you can navigate the inevitable uncertainty ahead. Dr. Kotecha likens this to a pilot navigating tricky turbulence. “On a flight during turbulence, we need a pilot who is mentally clear, focused, attentive. We are the pilots navigating our day to day lives.” We need to put ourselves in a better emotional mental state so that we are calm, grounded and effective at making decisions despite the bumpy path. When we are in a calmer frame of mind, the body moves from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system. “In this state, your blood pressure is reduced, your heart rate is lower, your muscles feel more relaxed and you become mentally calmer and clearer,” Dr. Kotecha said.
Practical rituals to try
Accessing this calmer state of mind and bringing the body into the parasympathetic state can be achieved in a number of ways.
- Dr. Kotecha advocates mindfulness or meditation. Try building a 10-minute practice into your morning or evening routine or use a mindfulness or meditation app when you feel particularly overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty. Taking this time out of your day to check in with your mind and body will help you become more aware of how you feel and this is the first step in making change.
- Lucy Baker, a confidence coach, suggests journaling as a method for dealing with uncertainty: “Go somewhere quiet, take pen to paper and ask yourself what the uncertainty is you are facing.” Brain dumping onto the page all your worries and concerns will help your mind feel clearer and your thoughts more organized. Once these thoughts are on the page, you can make sense of them better. “You can see what can be dismissed, what you need help on and how to tackle them,” she said. On paper, you can determine what is rational, what isn’t and what is in your control and what isn’t. This helps you let go of what you can’t control and focus on what is in your immediate remit.
- While it can be tempting to spill to your partner, a parent or friend, sometimes speaking to yourself is all you need. “You can often find the answers within yourself,” Baker added. As Baker points out, it’s important to remember: “You can’t control what’s around you but you can control how you react and feel towards it.” Using a journaling method like this — either daily or on a more ad hoc basis — will help you to build your own confidence in dealing with difficult situations or inevitable unpredictabilities. “When you feel confident you know you can rely on yourself. You feel more settled and able to separate yourself from the uncertain situation,” she added.
- If you’re struggling to manage your fears around uncertainty, it might be worth speaking with a professional. While it may not be possible to access in-person therapy at the moment, there are a plethora of online services that may be beneficial. Sites like TalkSpace and BetterHelp can match you with a licensed and verified therapist for counseling sessions via video or the phone that fit in your schedule. If you think you might benefit from an online support group, try SMART Recovery or Turn2Me.
As we moved into the last quarter of 2020, the world doesn’t look any more certain than six months ago. However, with awareness and a toolbox of coping techniques prepared, dealing with the unpredictability doesn’t feel quite so daunting.
If you are dealing with depression and needs help, you can call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-NAMI.