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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Living With Uncertainty During COVID-19

Low tolerance of uncertainty will heighten your anxiety about the pandemic.

It was only one month ago that daily life proceeded in a routine and predictable manner. In the last few weeks, the world as we know it has been completely upended. In what feels like a sudden crash of social and economic order, COVID-19 has shattered everything familiar about 21st-century living.

The very fabric of daily living has been torn asunder, and our health care structures, a marvel of scientific advancement, have been brought to the breaking point. Our frontline health care workers are fighting an epic battle under conditions and shortages unimaginable a month ago. The death toll from this virus is mounting; hundreds of millions worldwide are now self-isolating; millions have lost their job or businesses, at least temporarily; and the economy has been brought to a standstill.

Source: Pexels
Sitting alone.
Source: Pexels

History tells us there have been other tragedies of epic proportions, like two World Wars, widespread famine, climatic events like hurricanes and earthquakes, and waves of deadly disease, and even pandemic. But today, COVID-19 is our global catastrophe; it’s our tragedy at this moment in time, and so it is uppermost in our mind. And when a catastrophe so sudden, so unexpected, and so all-encompassing threatens the way we live, it’s only natural to feel a profound sense of uncertainty.

Uncertainty Is Not New

No one is immune to uncertainty. Even under normal circumstances, daily life is full of uncertainty in areas such as health, relationships, employment, finances, etc. We make numerous decisions knowing the outcome is uncertain. It has to be this way because we don’t know the future. So, living with uncertainty didn’t start with COVID-19. We’ve been living with uncertainty all our lives.

What is unique about pandemic uncertainty is the immense scale of the problem and its consequences. It has profoundly altered the everyday life of billions of people, its duration is unknown, and the long-term economic and social costs are unpredictable. Is this the beginning of a global societal collapse, or the birth of a new era?

This pandemic will end, but at what personal and societal cost? No one knows, but the stakes are staggering, and so the uncertainty of the last week feels different from the uncertainties of everyday life. Fortunately, there are several things we can do to strengthen our tolerance of uncertainty in these extraordinary times.

1. Know Your Tolerance Level

People differ in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. Some have a high tolerance, meaning they don’t find novel, ambiguous, or unpredictable situations particularly distressing. Other people with low uncertainty tolerance are most comfortable with routines, order, and the familiar. Their anxiety level rises when situations become ambiguous and unpredictable, like the circumstances of today.

Take a look at your tolerance of uncertainty. If it’s at the low end, connect by phone or online with family and friends who are more tolerant of uncertainty. Express to them your fears and anxiety, and listen to how they are tamping down their feelings of uncertainty. As a low tolerant person, you can learn from those with a higher tolerance.

2. Be Specific About Your Uncertainty

There are so many ways to feel anxious and uncertain in this pandemic. The uncertainties of the frontline health care professional working in dangerous and overcrowded hospitals will be different from the older person with an underlying medical condition maintaining total isolation. The person who’s lost their job, the entrepreneur whose business has been shuttered, the student whose education has been disrupted, the person working in an essential part of the economy, and so on, will have a different set of uncertainties.

Uncertainty is thinking about the future, whether it’s tomorrow or a year from now. Rather than living with a vague feeling of uncertainty, write down your specific worries. Making your uncertainty more specific will improve your ability to tolerate it.

3. Live in the Present

Regardless of your situation, the pandemic is a game-changer for almost everyone. Focus on today or this week, rather than letting your mind drift to the unknown future where anxiety and uncertainty resides. What are your present responsibilities, tasks, and activities that will help you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy?

One key responsibility we all share is to practice social distancing and stay at home, except for essential travel. When your mind strays into the unknown future, gently bring it back to the present. What’s needed to keep my loved ones and me safe and healthy today?

4. Focus on Resiliency

The human spirit is remarkably resilient. Each one of us has faced personal loss, disappointment, and failure, and yet we survived; we adapted. The same is true for the pandemic. As a society, we will triumph over COVID-19, and as individuals, we will come through this current crisis. Think back to your moments of resiliency over adversity. We all have that resilience within us. We need to be reminded of it during times of uncertainty.

5. Stay Connected

Finally, stay socially connected while maintaining physical distancing and the stay at home order. Tolerance of uncertainty erodes when we’re isolated, cut off from others, and stuck alone in our head. Reaching out to others is the best way to maintain emotional balance and weaken the pull of runaway thoughts of uncertainty.

More from David A. Clark Ph.D.
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