Three Ways to Cope With Uncertainty

What should we do when everything feels so out of control?

Posted Aug 04, 2020

Photo by Smart on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Smart on Unsplash

Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty. 

Research shows that job uncertainty, for example, tends to take a more significant toll on our health than actually losing our job. Similarly, research participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock felt far more anxious and agitated than participants who believed they were definitely going to receive the shock.

It is no surprise, then, that there are entire industries devoted to filling in the blanks of our futures. See, for example, the popularity of astrology apps, or the prestige of management consultancies dedicated to strategic planning. Fundamentalist religions counter anxiety by providing us with unambiguous rules and absolute truths. Conspiracy theories provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena.

But sometimes—maybe always—it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty. Though evolution might have rigged our brains to resist uncertainty, we can never really know what the future will bring. And in improbable situations like the pandemic, which has massively disrupted our routines and utterly destroyed our best-laid plans, we need to learn to live with ambiguity. “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is,” wrote mathematician John Allen Paulos. “Knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

So how can we best cope when everything feels so out of control? Here are seven surprising strategies.

1. Don’t resist

There’s no doubt: We are living through challenging times. But resisting this current reality won’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better. Ironically, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty by amplifying the challenging emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the aphorism that what we resist persists. 

There’s an alternative. Instead of resisting, we can practice acceptance. Research by Kristin Neff and her colleagues has shown that acceptance—particularly self-acceptance—is a counterintuitive secret to happiness. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is and moving forward from there.

Because acceptance allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment, it frees us up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed (or made ineffective) by uncertainty, fear, or argument. To practice acceptance, we surrender our resistance to a problematic situation, and also to our emotions about the situation

For example, you might find your marriage to be particularly challenging right now. Instead of criticizing or blaming your spouse—two tactics of resistance—you could calmly accept your marriage for the time being.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t feel frustrated anymore, or disappointed, or saddened by the state of things. A big part of acceptance is accepting how we feel about difficult circumstances (and difficult people) in our lives. But allowing our challenging marriage to be as it is right now—and acknowledging our feelings about it—puts us in a better position to move forward.

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Accepting a situation doesn’t mean that it will never get better. We don’t accept that things will stay the same forever; we only accept whatever is actually happening at the moment. We can work to make our marriage happier, while at the same time allowing the reality that right now, the relationship or the situation is complicated. Maybe it will get better, maybe it won’t. Practicing acceptance in the face of difficulty is hard, and it’s also the most effective way to move forward.

2. Pay attention

The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence. Instead of imagining a scary and unknown future, we can bring our attention to our breath. From there, we can check in with ourselves. Every time we wash our hands, for example, we could ask ourselves: How are you doing right now?

Notice what emotions you are feeling, and where in your body you feel those emotions. Bring curiosity and acceptance to your experience (see #1).

Even when it feels like everything is out of our control, we can still control what we pay attention to. We can turn off our alerts to keep the news or social media from hijacking our awareness. We can drop our ruminations and negative fantasies by attending to what’s actually happening in our inner world, right now, here in the present.

Attending to what is happening within us at any given moment keeps a crappy external reality from determining our inner truth. It allows us to cultivate calm, open-mindedness, and non-reactivity.

3. Find meaning in the chaos

Social psychologists define meaning, as it applies to our lives, as “an intellectual and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value, and impact.” We humans are best motivated by our significance to other people. We’ll work harder and longer and better—and feel happier about the work we are doing—when we know that someone else is benefiting from our efforts.

For example, teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

When we see something that needs improvement, our next step is to recognize what we personally can do to be a part of the solution. What skills and talents (or even just interests) can we bring to the issue? What really matters to us, and how can we be of service?

Meaning and purpose are wellsprings of hope. When the world feels scary or uncertain, knowing what meaning we have for others and feeling a sense of purpose can ground us better than anything else.

So, don’t just wait for this ordeal to be over. Don’t be resigned to your misery while we wait for a vaccine. What have you always wanted to do? What outcome are you hoping for? How can you make a real life in this? Live that life.

A longer version of this post originally appeared on The Greater Good Science Center.