Living in Uncertain Times
Proven psychological strategies can help reduce worry and anxiety.
Posted Jan 29, 2019
We live in uncertain times. Whether it is the on again-off again government shutdown, unprecedented political instability, terrorism, stock market volatility, climate change, or Brexit, the current situation provides a lot of fodder for worry. Most people are feeling uneasy about the growing uncertainty and unpredictability in the world, which is continuously fed by the 24-hour news cycle. For those generally prone to being anxious, this is a particularly difficult time.
As a psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area, I hear about heightened anxiety, frustration, and helplessness every day. The most affected, such as furloughed government workers or contractors, were so worn out from mounting anxiety and existential fear that they started reporting higher levels of hopelessness and depression.
We dislike uncertainty because we fear the possibility that negative events will become reality. A lack of knowledge feeds the anxiety. How can we deal with the uncertainty without being overwhelmed by it? Here are some suggestions based on psychological science:
1. Realize that our minds “trick” us into thinking the worst.
Humans are not good at predicting how they will react emotionally to either negative or positive events in the future. As psychologists would put it, we are very poor at “affective forecasting.” When faced with uncertainty, our minds imagine various bad outcomes down the road. We then tend to overestimate how much these bad events will affect us and how long the emotional impact will last. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert from Harvard and Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia found this “impact bias” to be prevalent in a variety of situations. As we fret about losing money in the stock market or about traveling to Florida during hurricane season, it is important to remember that we are generally more resilient than we think. When a bad thing actually happens, most of us won’t take it as hard as we might have predicted beforehand.
One reason for impact bias is that we cannot accurately account for other things going on in our future life. Future circumstances are likely to attenuate the impact of any one negative event. Another cause of impact bias is an under-appreciation of the natural human tendency to adapt to anything life throws at us. Most people adjust well to both negative and positive changes, returning to their pre-change life satisfaction levels in a relatively short period of time. This process, termed “hedonistic adaptation,” applies to the majority of life’s events. Thus, whatever we fear might happen in the future, we will likely cope with it better and adjust to it faster than anticipated.
2. Divide and conquer.
Free-floating worry is hardest to conquer. When we catch our mind hopping from one topic of concern to another, it is time to put our thoughts on paper. If you are worrying about losing your government contractor job and the dwindling of your kid’s college savings account and rising terrorism and so on, you should keep a list of the worry topics. Then set aside time to examine your list, eliminate redundancies, and go through each item using the following Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) procedure: Think through the best, the worst and the most realistic outcome. Finally, plan how you would cope with the worst outcome. This will inoculate you against snowballing next time the worry shows up.
3. Focus on what you can do now.
It is important to distinguish between unproductive worry and problem-solving. Is there something that’s under your control now that could reduce the uncertainty about the future? That calls for problem-solving. Regarding financial uncertainty, examples could include finding alternative sources of income, making a plan for reducing spending, talking to relatives about their ability and willingness to help, etc. If you are concerned about your upcoming travel to England, make sure to build in extra time at their airports and customs. Problem-solving is best accomplished in a focused manner: Clearly define the goal, generate multiple solutions, choose the best one and make a detailed implementation plan. Repeat for each new goal.
Everything that does not fall under problem-solving but is still keeping your mind preoccupied for minutes or hours is worry. Worry is repetitive and circular. It leads to anxiety and is completely fruitless. A good CBT strategy to keep worry from consuming your day is to designate a daily 20-minute-long “worry time.” Whenever worry shows up in your mind, notice it, write down the topic for your worry time, and then redirect your attention toward something else.
4. Put it in perspective.
It is important to recognize that we already accept uncertainty in many areas of life. Each time we drive a car we cannot predict what we will encounter on the road—terrible traffic, careless or dangerous drivers, ice, potholes, etc. Each time we leave our home we lack complete certainty about the weather. As for the stock market, it has been unstable before and we have still invested in it over time. We thus tacitly accept its uncertain and unpredictable nature. Remembering that uncertainty is always an integral part of life might help us see the current times as perhaps just a bit worse than usual, rather than catastrophic.
In the same vein, we could use an imaginary uncertainty scale that goes from zero to 100 to calibrate how bad things really are. You should create a mental picture of what zero uncertainty looks like (hint: it does not exist in reality) and, more importantly, what 100 entails. A score of 100 might mean that you have complete uncertainty about being able to eat today or about having a safe place to sleep, for example. As one of the Cognitive Therapy founders, Albert Ellis, suggested, it is helpful to realize whether a current situation is really serious or whether our thinking is making it so. As we find ourselves fretting about uncertainty, it behooves us to ask: “How bad is this, on a scale of zero to 100?” We just might end up appreciating that things are not as bad as they could be, or as bad as others might be experiencing right now. The latter phenomenon is known as “downward social comparison.”
5. Get out of your mind and into your body.
When we get stuck inside our minds worrying about uncertainty, there is nothing better than refocusing attention on our bodies. From behavior therapy we know that moving as much as possible, preferably outside, can significantly improve mood and decrease anxiety. We also know that paying attention to bodily sensations in any given moment can center us and help disrupt the ruminative loop. You could focus on your five senses or do a “body scan,” paying attention sequentially to the different parts of your body, from head to toe.
Furthermore, body-related relaxation methods can be used to reduce tension and alleviate anxiety. They include diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). The diaphragmatic breathing protocol involves breathing in such way that your stomach moves as much as possible, while your chest remains still. This is best accomplished by putting one hand on your stomach and another on your chest, and continuing to breathe in such manner for seven minutes. PMR is practiced by tensing and relaxing muscles in your body, going sequentially and gradually from your toes to the top of your head.
6. Notice and reduce avoidance behaviors.
When faced with uncertainty and all the negative thoughts and feelings that accompany it, we sometimes just want to run away from it all. It is a natural human tendency to attempt to escape the pain by distraction. Avoidance behaviors might include Netflix binge-watching, unhealthy snacking, drinking, prolonged web surfing etc. Less-obvious avoidance strategies are excessive information-searching, checking, reassurance-seeking, and procrastination. While all these behaviors might indeed offer temporary relief, they always make the hard emotions come back with a vengeance. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) shows us how to recognize and change avoidance patterns in the service of better life.
It is common and harmless to engage in a bit of distraction or escapism from time to time. However, continuous avoidance will only lead us to feel worse and live a life stripped of meaning and vitality. As a psychological saying goes, “what you resist persists.” And what you find courage to face head-on changes life for the better.