How to Cope With Uncertain Times
You can't change reality, but you can reframe it.
Posted April 7, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
A crisis is the single most difficult challenge for everyone, especially when it comes in the form of a virus that took the entire world by storm. It’s a clear realization that no one is immune but, most importantly, that we are not in control.
These are difficult times. We are facing an unprecedented problem, and no one knows what the answer is. So, how do we cope in these uncertain times? Start by focusing on what you can manage. You cannot control the crisis, but you can control your response.
How we show up during challenging times is how we show up everywhere. To cope with this crisis, we must reframe our relationship with it. Here are five ways to get started.
1. What you’re feeling is grief
It’s okay to feel anxious, sad, lost, afraid, or worried about losing your job or loved ones.
The fact that you continue to do your job or daily chores doesn’t mean that you are not struggling deep inside (just like everyone else). Pause and reconnect with your emotions. How are you feeling?
As David Kessler tells Harvard Business Review, we are all grieving on a micro and a macro level. Anticipatory grief is the feeling about what the future holds. Usually, it centers on death — we feel something is lost. As Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving explains, anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.
Change is loss. Now, during a pandemic, that loss is even more confusing. We are experiencing anticipatory grief because we realize that something is gone, and things won’t be the same once the crisis is over. Many people feel the loss of safety, others the sense of belonging derived from isolation. Most people grieve because they no longer feel in control.
Connect with your anticipatory grief. What are you grieving for? Name it so you can tame it. Understanding your emotional state is the first step to regaining some control.
2. Pause before you react
These are scary times. We live under the illusion that we have control over our lives, but we don’t. Now, the realization is more evident than ever.
It’s okay to feel afraid, anxious, or stressed out. Emotions are a natural response to external events, especially when we feel threatened. What is not okay is to let our emotions take over. We must manage how we respond.
When we react to an external stimulus, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body, putting us in full alert. After that time, the body flushes those chemicals away. This means that for 90 seconds, you can observe the process happening — you can experience, feel it, and then see it how it goes away.
You can react to this chemical alert, or you can wait until it’s gone before you act.
The 90-second rule is a term coined by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her book, My Stroke of Insight, to explain the nature and lifespan of an emotion. If you leave it uninterrupted by thoughts, you can quickly regain control of your response.
Next time you are experiencing an emotional reaction, pause. Practice deep breaths — you can stretch your body, too — during those 90 seconds. Enjoy that moment, and don’t let emotions dictate your response. How do you feel using the 90-second rule to regain control of your reaction?
3. Reframe your words
Words are powerful. The way we talk about the crisis has a direct impact on how we perceive what’s going on. Negative words create an adverse effect and the other way around. As neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg explains, “The longer you concentrate on positive words, functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself.”
Use the chart below as a reference. For example, instead of using the phrase “social distancing,” use “physical distance.” Having to keep a distance of at least six feet, doesn’t mean that we stop socializing with our friends or neighbors. That we work remotely doesn’t mean that we must distance from our colleagues.
The same happens when we replace "isolation" (that has a negative perception) with "protection." We are not isolated from other human beings; we are staying at home to protect ourselves and others.
Become more aware of the words you use. Reframe negative ones into positive words.
4. Put the crisis in perspective
Every crisis is unique. This might feel the worst ever, but it’s not. Putting things in perspective will help you lower anxiety and regain control. As human beings, we have fought many crises before, and we were able to thrive.
Consider past devastating crises. Back in the time, everyone felt it was the end of the world, but people survived and bounced back.
The Bubonic plague killed 31% of the European population; 18 million people died in 1347. During the Spanish Influenza, 1 out of 20 inhabitants was killed in Spain. 9/11 put New York City on its knees. Everyone got back on their feet, and humanity was able to thrive once again.
Think about your own crises. What were the worst experiences you ever faced? We’ve all lost loved ones or got fired from a job. Some people have to deal with severe health conditions. I’ve been very close to dying a couple of times, and here I am.
Crises put our characters to the test. It’s our choice that a better version of ourselves comes out of the storm.
All crises are survivable. We will survive this. Putting things in perspective will help you focus on what you can control. Take precautions — protect yourself — without overreacting.
5. Build resilience by reframing the event
Why do some people break while others thrive in adversity?
The answer is resilience — our ability to bounce back. Luckily, resilience is not an innate trait, but something that you can develop. The way you perceive an event determines how resilient you are.
“Potentially Traumatic Event” (PTE) is a term coined by George Bonanno, the head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University. According to the professor, an event is not traumatic unless we experience it as such.
Our perception of an adverse event can turn it into a traumatic one or not. Your mindset, your thoughts, and how you frame reality, define if you will be traumatized by a crisis, or not.
Reframing is a powerful tool to help you cope with stressful events. It’s more than turning a crisis into an opportunity. Instead of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” think, “What can I learn from this event?” By reframing an incident, you recover control by shifting your role from “victim” to “hero.”
Psychiatrist Steven Wolin defines resiliency as “the capacity to rise above adversity.” When something goes wrong, you must manage to stay in control rather than let the situation take over. Your thoughts — not grit — shape your perceptions and behavior.
No one knows how this crisis will unfold, but you can, at least, manage how you deal with it.
I will be hosting another session of my free webinar, “How to Lead in Times of Uncertainty," where I will share a framework and multiple tools and exercises to help you cope during these uncertain times.