Managing uncertainty: 5 ways to support your wellbeing

Written on 
April 22, 2020

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Now, more than ever, many of us are feeling consumed by uncertainty. Living in a world where words like “lockdown”, “pandemic” and “quarantine” are the new normal is unsettling, but it’s the unpredictability that really bites. Without a clear picture of what’s coming next, our present seems almost endless. Each day we worry for the security for our loved ones, our jobs, our finances and our own health. Such intense, protracted uncertainty carries disastrous potential for our wellbeing, making the need to prioritize mental health more important than ever. When it comes to managing uncertainty, building emotional resilience is a great place to start. Here’s how to practically go about it.

How resilience trumps uncertainty

Uncertainty is paradoxically one of the most certain elements of life. As Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “Change is the only constant in life”; echoed 2,500 years later by JFK: “Change is the law of life.” But that doesn’t necessarily make it more palatable – while things may always be in flux, many of us still find change and uncertainty paralyzing. When we become so focused on what’s happening in our immediate situation, we may lose sight of the bigger picture. This “unproductive uncertainty” can lead us to make poor decisions, pass up opportunities and feel overwhelmed.

But some of us actually thrive during times of unpredictable change. Resilience is often thought to be the same as strength or grit, but according to the American Psychological Association, it’s actually “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” Resilience is totally entwined with adaptability – they both relate to recovering from hardship and using our experiences to create positive outcomes.

Whether it’s a pandemic or a family crisis or losing a job, there’ll always be hardships in life – and so building resilience and staying adaptable will always be beneficial. We’ve already written about the importance of adaptability (“the better we can adapt, the better we can accept and embrace change”), but the great thing about resilience and adaptability is that they’re like any skill: they can be learned. So what strategies can we use to stay afloat and manage uncertainty?

5 ways to manage uncertainty

1. Practice CBT

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps people understand how their thoughts affect their emotions, and in turn, their behavior. The goal of CBT is to teach people to identify negative thoughts and reframe them into positive ones. While CBT usually involves speaking to a therapist, either in-person or over the phone, it’s also something you can practice at home by yourself. Try questioning some of your frightening thoughts and pinpointing what it is you’re actually worried about. Try out different activities and use your senses to be in the moment. Have a look at some at-home CBT strategies that can help ease anxiety and uncertainty.

2. Practice mindfulness

Feelings of uncertainty can lead to stress and anxiety when not managed. Mindfulness – and other forms of meditation – are good ways to support your wellbeing and alleviate fear, and they’ve been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is all about being in the present, of paying attention to your surroundings and the things we frequently overlook. In times of uncertainty, it’s easy to get carried away with potential “worst case” scenarios, but being grounded in the moment and coming back to the body can stop your mind running away from you.

You don’t have to go to a class or contort yourself into positions to benefit from mindfulness – this is something you can at home alone. Check out some of the most popular meditation apps and see which ones work best for you; alternatively, go for a short walk, taking note of your surroundings, or simply take a few moments to “be”, whether you’re sitting at your desk or making a cup of tea.

3. Get regular exercise

It’s not groundbreaking, but getting regular exercise is one of the best things a person can do to manage uncertainty. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise can affect brain function and reduce symptoms of anxiety; a 2019 study found that just going for a short run changes connectivity patterns in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions like uncertainty and fear.

Exercise in general lowers stress levels, helps you regulate your emotions, and improves sleep – which obviously plays a big part in maintaining a healthy mind and body. Getting outdoors and experiencing nature is also linked to better mental health, so even if you’re not a runner, something as simple as walking through a park can still boost your mood and help manage uncertainty.

4. Breathe

Breathing techniques form a big part of CBT and mindfulness, and for good reason. Being in control of your breathing helps alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety, and focusing on your breathing helps you be in the moment, quietening any panicked thoughts that are lodged in your brain. Simply sit down (or lie down), put your hands on your stomach and take a deep, slow breath in through your nose; you should be able to feel your diaphragm move in and out. Inhale for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth for a further five seconds. Once you’ve mastered this technique you’ll be able to use it whenever you feel doubts and uncertainty beginning to creep in.

5. Focus on what you can control

We can’t control all events in life, but we can control how we react. There’s no point blaming others for things that have gone wrong or becoming consumed with regret – this just holds us back. While it’s normal to focus on things out of our control during times of uncertainty, try to concentrate on things you actually can control. Instead of tormenting yourself with what could have been or wishing things were different, look for opportunities for self-discovery, and ways you can grow and develop.

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