Counselling psychologist Niamh Delmar shares her tips for coping with uncertainty in a world turned upside down.
Over the last couple of years, at various levels, people have been living under a global threat. Feeling endangered, anxiety levels have risen among populations across the world. Exposure to scary scenes on the media, accounts of people being ventilated, deaths, case numbers and the unknown has left many in a heightened state of alertness.
Tales of long-Covid and more variants keeps the threat lurking in the shadows. Planning, predictability and looking forward to events and interactions were removed in a society shut down. We are adjusting to making 'loose' plans.
Each person meets change with their own personality, stressors, past and coping repertoire. Awaiting test or exam results, job offers and other waiting game scenarios challenge psychological stability. Like all stressful events, the more prolonged they are, the more fall-out.
Uncertainty is a danger to the psyche and leads to anxiety. We are hard wired wanting to know what lies ahead. As uncertainty continues, our systems get overloaded setting off the stress response with our thoughts and emotions going haywire.
Pandemic uncertainty triggers anticipatory anxiety as people grapple with what may happen to their loved ones, jobs, businesses, health and every other aspect of living. For some they simulate the worst case scenario, others may seek to escape or avoid, while a few handle it one step at a time. Individuals often oscillate from feeling steady to being overwhelmed throughout the day.
According to Aoife O’Donovan, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the UCSF Well Institute for Neurosciences, the stress of uncertainty is one of the most insidious stressors we face as human beings. The stress response goes into overdrive with uncertainty.
The prefrontal cortex in the brain plays a part in deciding which information to ignore and which to focus on. The Locus Coeruleus tracks uncertainty and releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which makes you feel wired and on edge.
So what have we know that is most effective when facing uncertainty?
Pause to reflect and process what is going on within you rather than around you. Bring awareness to changes you have noticed about yourself, your emotional states, cognitive processes and what’s going on in your head. How is stress or anxiety been 'leaking out'?
When you are becoming caught up in anxiety or stress responses, gently notice and step back. Using the observer mind just witnesses without overreacting.
Thoughts are powerful and have an immediate impact on us physiologically and emotionally. We can monitor them but not believe them as they get distorted by adrenaline or low mood. Worst case scenarios, catastrophizing and negative predictions are unhelpful. Ask yourself if this thought is based on reality or is it anxiety driven?
In his book The Happiness Trap, Acceptance and Commitment trainer Russ Harris refers to the "adding of stories" to a situation, which amplifies our stress .We can also use 'reframing' which shifts our negative view of a situation to a challenge or opportunity. We can practice noticing when we are ruminating and gently bring ourselves away from going down those mental rabbit holes.
Overthinking is harmful to our emotional and physical health. Repeating mini mantras like "not now" can help you stay grounded.
Emotional tracking involves checking in with what feelings are coming up for you. Emotional regulation helps us to keep steady when there is upheaval. It involves managing and directing your emotions. Try practising letting go of negative emotions and not acting on them.
Learning to pause between an intense emotional reaction and action is a useful strategy. Check if your emotional response is appropriate to the event. According to neuroscientists, we can practice at shifting our emotional states to more positive ones, such as awe or gratitude, and rewire our brains.
Uncertainty means something is out of our control. People like to feel secure and have a sense of control over their lives. Facing the unknown can leave us feeling powerless. Focus more on what you can control in the present such as taking positive action, daily routines, reaching out for support or engaging in healthy habits that boost your well-being.
Develop ways to restore your sense of autonomy, such as shifting your expectations. Worrying and overthinking do not give more control over uncontrollable events.
This attentional focus on the present moment and quietening of the noisy mind provides a buffer against stress and aids emotional regulation. Research has found that, with regular daily practice, attention and working memory are strengthened and clarity and well-being are restored.
Studies have found that engaging in "flow", when you are totally immersed in one activity, boosted well-being during periods of uncertainty.
Choose what you listen to, read or watch. Some stimuli will aggravate the fear of the unknown. Excessive Googling, tuning in or listening to worst case scenarios amplifies anticipatory anxiety. Try not to internalise other peoples’ stories or fears.
Factor in some fun, laughter or enjoyment into your daily life. This lightens the load and boosts the happy neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Integrate activities that absorb you and help to refocus your attention.
Uncertainty is part of life. Acceptance is challenging and takes practice not to resist and battle with what is. It is as it is. Life has been unpredictable over the last few years. It is only natural to feel a bit all over the place. Plans have been cancelled, work practices changed, familial arrangements shifted, interactions curtailed, and so much more.
Not knowing what is coming next is unsettling. Tolerating the discomfort is challenging, but there are ways that we can keep ourselves grounded. Carpe Diem.