How to cope with uncertainty
Last month I talked about why the COVID-19 lockdown was a particularly anxiety-provoking situation and one of the issues that I raised was ‘uncertainty’.
We’re uncertain about many things at the moment; practical ones like our jobs, the future, when the lockdown will be released and how we (and our loved ones) will be affected should we have the virus. But, also, emotional ones like our own ability to adapt to the changing world around us.
Why is uncertainty a problem for so many of us?
- Our brains work on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle. They are hard-wired to react to uncertainty with fear because if life is unpredictable then anything could happen – and that ‘anything’ could be dangerous. Fear leads to worry and stress which make it harder to think rationally and carefully.
- Uncertainty triggers ‘what if …?’ thinking. In an effort to cover every eventuality, your thoughts spiral around trying to work out the nature and solutions of every possible scenario which, of course, makes you feel overwhelmed and increases the difficulty of rational thought and planning.
- The inability to plan and organise things or make decisions can make you feel hopeless or inept – this has an impact on your confidence, self-esteem and thinking patterns. You find yourself thinking ‘I should know what to do’. If you keep telling yourself inside that you aren’t coping well or should be coping better, that makes you feel even more out of control and increases your stress levels.
- It is harder to make decisions if you don’t know what the outcome of the decision will be. The more uncertain the outcome, the harder the decision. This can lead to making decisions based on a knee-jerk reaction (see the box) or to avoiding them altogether for as long as you can.
|You might think that, if we have less information and more uncertainty, we’d make decisions more carefully, but studies show the opposite is true . That means we
How can you cope better with uncertainty?
- Accept that certainty is simply not possible in most circumstances. Even every-day decisions like what to have for tea can have unexpected consequences.
- Do your research where you can – in circumstances like the lockdown, this probably means restricting your reading to a few reliable sources, and ignoring alarmist, unproven and sensational ones.
- Focus on what matters and don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Don’t dwell on problems: put a reasonable time limit on decisions to avoid prevarication.
- Break down important decisions into smaller pieces, which individually might have more predictable outcomes.
- Looking at a problem from a different point of view can be helpful. Seek support, or imagine what advice someone else might give you.
- Take action on those parts of the situation you can control, get a routine and practice good self-care based on physical and mental good health.
- Affirmations can help you let go of your need for certainty if you practice them regularly. Read THIS ARTICLE to use them to the best effect.
Suggested affirmations to improve your tolerance of uncertainty
I approach uncertainty with an open mind.
I believe in myself and my abilities to make it through challenging times.
Remembering my accomplishments gives me the confidence to tackle something unfamiliar.
My past successes prove that I can tackle the newness in front of me.
My life is filled with wonderful blessings because I take on challenges with confidence.
 Starcke, K. and Brand, M. (2016). Effects of Stress on Decisions Under Uncertainty: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 909–933. DOI:10.1037/bul0000060
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.