Dr. Jonathan Egan, Lecturer in Psychology at NUI Galway, talked to Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio 1 about uncertainty; what it is, and how we can deal with it.

Of the many things that the pandemic has brought to the fore in our lives, possibly the most widespread experience across the planet has been uncertainty. When will the pandemic end? Will the pandemic end? Will the schools reopen? What will tomorrow/next week/next month bring?

Uncertainty, as described by Dr Jonathan Egan, Lecturer in Psychology at NUI Galway to Ryan Tubridy, is:

"The tendency for you, as a person, to consider the possibility of a negative event occurring as unacceptable, as threatening, irrespective of the probability of its occurrence."

So, Ryan offered by way of clarity, he (Ryan) has long wished to take a trip to Iceland, but every time he thinks about spending a few days there, the possibility of getting Covid while there and being unable to make it back to present the Late Late Show is, well, an unacceptable possibility. QED.

But this, Dr Egan says, is prospective anxiety, one of the two main types of uncertainty. The other – more important – type is inhibitory anxiety, which manifests as uncertainty keeping someone from living a full life.

"When we get frightened, we go into black and white thinking. It's all adrenalin, or adrenalin and cortisol and we get brain fog and we can't think creatively, we can’t think, it’s all, 'I’ll be safe or in danger,’ that’s what happens to our thinking process."

The stress produced by the anxiety of uncertainty can have physical as well as mental symptoms, including headaches, stomach cramps, dizziness. Dr Egan describes a way of taking stock when it comes to uncertainty and it involves asking ourselves some very important questions:

"Am I being self-compassionate? Do I have joy in my life? Am I able to access sadness, am I able to have a good cry if I’m feeling sad? Am I able to access anger, if I’m feeling loss, if I’ve lost somebody, someone’s died, can I access both anger and sadness? Can I access – and this is a big one – hope?"

Dr Egan cited a recent Irish Times article which claimed that 20% of Irish people don’t have hope anymore, which is a huge number.

Another element we need to ask ourselves about is closeness – something that has been fundamentally affected by the pandemic – as people tend cope better in general if they can be physically close to people they care about. If it becomes difficult or impossible to access any of these emotions, anxiety tends to build up, then shame and guilt:

"And if that’s not managed, Ryan, we start to go into this ruminating, this withdrawal from other people; emotional eating, which a lot of us did, and then we moved on to emotional shopping."

To learn about the psychology of uncertainty, the mental and physical toll it can take, and the ways we can work around it, listen back to the interview at the top of the page.