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Living with Uncertainty

Even though it may feel like we are living the same day over and over again, the uncertainty of the future is leaving many of us feeling anxious.

Another day, another week, almost another month. Such an interesting and irritating time to be going through. There’s change afoot, which is both exciting and scary, and there’s monotony beyond belief which is boring and tiresome. I’ve heard people describing their lives at this point as Groundhog Day, the movie with Bill Murray. But by now I hope we’re all on the same page in at least understanding that even though this is a challenging period, it will pass and we can make the best of it, or not.

I also hope at least some of you started to think about your new normal from our last episode. I spent some time focusing on mine and although I don’t have a full picture yet, it’s starting to fall into place, and frankly, I don’t feel like there’s a rush here. We’ve got quite a way to go before we can probably even sort of see what the outside world will look like for the next few years, so it’s definitely a little murky picturing how we’ll fit into it.

Anxiety continues to be the number one issue that our workshop participants and coaching clients report being disruptive to their current situations. As we’ve discussed for weeks now, although there are a lot of external events that may cause stress or anxiety, a lot of that anxiety is because our minds do not like uncertainty and we’re certainly sitting in the biggest puddle of uncertainty I’ve ever experienced.

Uncertainty causes the brain to release hormones that generate fear. This is a built-in protective mechanism that has not evolved as our environment has changed. In studies on uncertainty, the less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. That’s a little alarming considering how much we don’t know right now! There are ways, however, that we can override our brain’s irrational tendencies and handle uncertainty more effectively.

I think we need two levels of uncertainty remedies. One for the immediate quick hit, so to speak, and the other for the long haul. There are several simple steps to take to help us better face uncertainties.

Be kind to yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up if your tolerance for unpredictability is lower than someone else’s. Remind yourself that it might take time for the stressful situation to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.

Reflect on past successes. You’ve overcome stressful events in the past. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful, and what you might like to do differently this time.

Limit exposure to news. Compulsively watching the news only keeps our stress levels high. Limit check-ins and avoid the news during vulnerable times of day, such as right before bedtime, or on days when you are feeling particularly sad, angry or fearful.

Don’t believe everything you see or hear. We live in a brand new world when it comes to access to manipulate the public.

Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. When uncertainty strikes, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios. Get out of the habit of ruminating on negative events.

Control what you can. Focus on the things that are within your control, even if it’s as simple as weekly meal planning or laying out your clothes the night before a stressful day. Establish routines to give your days and weeks some comforting structure.

Seek support from those you trust. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. But social support is important, so reach out to family and friends.

Engage in self-care. Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Make efforts to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Practice mindfulness and meditation, yoga or other mind-body techniques.

We are definitely in a marathon, not a sprint, so that long haul view is not about what’s happening in the external world. It’s about changing our relationship with uncertainty. Increasing our psychological resilience is a permanent solution to working and living with uncertainty, as it allows us to tolerate uncertainty more effectively and to more readily accept outcomes that are less than desirable. Resilience is our ability to adapt and bounce back when things don't go as planned.

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. Mindfulness practices can help us strengthen that resiliency.

For a clearer picture of what that might look like, I had a conversation with Dr. Jill A. Stoddard, founder and director of The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in San Diego, California, to discuss her book, Be Mighty, A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance.

Stop, look and listen. What a simple yet effective exercise we can all do to get grounded whenever we start feeling anxious.

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