- Katy Dimple Manning, LMSW
Managing Uncertainty in 2021 (Here We Go Again)
In a year that's been characterized by confused citizens clamoring for vaccines, a not so peaceful transition of power, and Reddit pwning hedgefund managers, being able to handle feelings of uncertainty is a crucial skill. Here are some tips to help you maintain some level of emotional regulation during chaotic times.
Examine your reaction to uncertainty
The first step to coping with the unknown is examining how you currently cope. Are you the type to isolate and avoid others? Are you prone to intense expressions of anxiety? Something different altogether? Do you look everywhere for answers to questions you know are unanswerable?
Start to notice the thoughts you have about yourself, others, and the world when uncertainty approaches. In addition, pay attention to the physical sensations you experience and try to name as accurately as possible the emotions that you feel. I'll use myself and how I sometimes feel to illustrate what this may look like:
Thoughts about myself: "I'm unsure of my ability to handle this situation."
Thoughts about others: "If people would just be less selfish, we'd all get through this rough situation quicker."
Thoughts about the world: "It feels like we'll never get through this pandemic."
Physical sensations: I notice my jaw is clenched and my stomach feels tight.
Emotions: I feel stressed, anxious, frustrated, and self-doubt.
Ask yourself what kinds of situations cause you to feel most uncertain. If you notice your thoughts feel unhelpful or inaccurate when held up to objective facts, try and tweak your thoughts to be more helpful and accurate. For example, I might tweak the thought about myself and instead think, "I've handled lots of new situations before and mostly been okay." This makes me feel less anxious and more self-assured. I could change my thought about others to, "Everyone is doing the best they know how with the information they have."
Try it out for yourself, and notice how adjusting your thoughts impacts your emotions.
Focus on what you can control
While you can't control every uncertain situation in your life, you can tailor your approach to handling them. Your influence over your situation will vary greatly depending on your life circumstances, but in every situation, there are aspects you can control.
Try brainstorming a list - be as open as you can. Most people have some level of control over how fast they breathe. Slowing your breathing and breathing into your belly can help ground your nervous system, making you feel calmer. If you have access to the internet, you can control how much time you are on it and the types of content you consume. If you notice certain content isn't helpful for you, you can limit your intake. Remember: if you have internet you're perpetually a few clicks away from puppy videos, a true happiness serum if I ever saw one. What else can you think of that you have control over? Think of as many things as possible, and don't edit as you go. Just remove things from the list after you've exhausted every single thing you can think of.
Another aspect to control is preparing as much as possible for uncertainty. Say your vaccine category is finally reached and you are able to go get it, but you are not sure how long it will take, where you'll be able to get it, whether they will run out before you arrive... there are so many factors.
Knowing that this is a highly uncertain situation, how can you plan ahead so you're not as overwhelmed? If you know you may be waiting a long time, maybe bring a quiet activity. If you know you'll be in line in your car, be sure to use the bathroom or have a buddy with you so you can take turns driving and run to a nearby restroom. Google what others in your area have done to prepare and what their experiences were like. Arm yourself with helpful thoughts and flexible expectations to help manage anxious emotions that may arise.
Accept that there's more to come
In the U.S., many of us have developed the privilege of expecting clear communication and set expectations, which can make it hard to cope when plans change. However, the past year has taught us more than anything that we usually can't fully count on any particular outcome. This is where acceptance is key.
If you notice yourself clinging to specific outcomes (which if they don't come to pass will leave you pretty upset or distressed) slow your roll a bit. Again, this is an opportunity to tweak your thoughts to something more realistic like, "It would be really nice if this situation turns out the way I want, and I can handle it if it doesn't," or, "I am going to hope and work toward the best outcome even though I know it's not totally under my control."
Finally, when all else fails, try to take heart in the fact that all feelings are essentially fleeting. Whatever mood or emotion you are experiencing will pass with time and ever-changing circumstances.
The past 365 days have been a doozie, and 2021 promises to keep delivering the hits. Be as gentle as you can with yourself during *sigh* what are still these uncertain times.