Humans are hardwired to crave certainty. Psychologists argue that it’s an innate need, programmed into our biology and reinforced through evolution.1 Understanding our environment allows us to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty allows us, theoretically, to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.
The need for certainty is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is all about testing and forming theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children acquiring theory of mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries. Even our language reflects this. Consider how many words we have around the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.
At its crux, the need for certainty reflects a desire to control and master the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether that’s deciding what to eat for breakfast, opting for the highway or surface streets on our commute, or choosing whom to marry. Every decision, from mundane to life-altering, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of getting a favorable outcome. We can only do that if our world is predictable, at least to a degree.
Consequences of Uncertainty
When faced with ambiguous or uncertain circumstances, brain regions associated with fear and vigilance light up.2 3 Subjectively, uncertainty may result in freezing or shutting down, excessive negative emotions, worry about the future, or worsening of certain mental health conditions.4 When it persists, uncertainty becomes a form of chronic stress. I don’t have to tell you how that erodes every dimension of health. It also sucks up valuable mental resources as our brain seeks to resolve the uncertainty.
That’s bad news in times like these. The usual advice applies: practice self-care, gratitude, mindfulness, radical acceptance. But coping with times like these isn’t a matter of mere self-care, not in the way the term gets thrown around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of bubble baths, chamomile tea, and gentle movement. When it comes to self-care, those are the basics, the bare minimum of kindness we should all be showing ourselves regularly. They’re important, but when our sense of certainty and control have been upended, it takes more than the basics.
Allow Yourself to Feel Your Feelings…
Uncertainty and lack of control have real consequences for our psychological and physical health. Suppressing emotions, denying how challenging the situation is, or engaging in self-recrimination only compounds the problem.
Especially now, when everyone is in the same boat, it’s tempting to downplay our feelings. There’s no need to compare your suffering to others’. There’s always someone who has it worse than you, but that doesn’t mean your feelings are valid. On the contrary, if you’re struggling right now, your feelings are absolutely valid. Your fundamental needs aren’t being met, and you may be dealing with legitimate fears about safety and wellbeing. Many of us are experiencing some form of ambiguous loss, as our ability to engage in “normal life” has been stripped.
…But Avoid Spiraling
It’s one thing to process how hard the current situation is. It’s another to give in to catastrophic thinking.
This is where self-compassion, gratitude, and acceptance practices can help. Together, they allow you to recognize your suffering (to use self-compassion language) while also keeping some perspective. You might also work on both-and thinking, which is a coping strategy from the ambiguous loss literature. Both-and statements acknowledge that multiple, even seemingly contradictory, things can be true simultaneously. Examples might include, “I can feel grief and despair, and also hope,” or “I am less productive than I used to be, and I’m also continuing to make progress.” (More on that shortly.)
When feelings feel too big or too hard, it’s helpful to process them with someone else. Remember, therapy is self-care. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it’s easier than ever to access mental health services from the privacy of your home.
Melt stress away with Adaptogenic Calm
Lean on Other People…
Resilience is the ability to withstand adversity, trauma, or stress—bending but not breaking, ideally becoming better adapted to face difficult situations in the future. One fundamental source of resilience is having others upon whom you can rely, people who will share your burden and help you get through difficult times.
This doesn’t mean you have to have a large circle of close friends and acquaintances. Rather, it means fostering meaningful and supportive relationships with individuals and/or belonging to groups that provide similar benefits. These might be religious affiliations, volunteer organizations, support groups, or even your workplace.
Of course, this only works if you are willing to reach out. It can be as simple as showing up for a Zoom happy hour with friends, but also don’t be afraid to request more. In my experience, people want to help. They’re just waiting to be asked.
…And Find Ways to Be There for Others
The flip side of this is allowing other people to lean on you. When things feel out of control, being there for others helps you heal, too, by creating positive energy and purpose.
There are lots of ways to be prosocial. Pick up the phone and call someone. Take one small task off a coworker’s plate, or write them a note of appreciation. Donate money or time to an organization working to affect positive change. Write a letter to your congressperson. Send a care package. The act of giving can actually create energy, so long as you’re careful to balance it with filling your own bucket.
Expect Less of Yourself…
How many think pieces have been written over the past six months giving us permission to be less productive than normal? I guess not enough, because I see lots of people continuing to beat themselves up for struggling at working, being less strict with their exercise routines, and letting their houses be messy.
Clearly, we underestimate how much uncertainty in and of itself drains our mental resources. While we may be over the initial shock of the pandemic—though the hits of 2020 keep on coming—the uncertainty and lack of control remain. Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to rest. Reevaluate your standards for “success.” Say no where you can.
…But Keep Getting Things Done
It’s all well and good to say you should lower your expectations and say no to things, but what about the things you have to get done? Jobs, parenting, and caregiver responsibilities can’t simply be tossed aside. While I do support the idea that it’s ok to do less right now, sometimes you need to buck up and take a step forward (mental health crises excluded).
Action, any action, can be self-reinforcing because you’re exerting control again. Maybe it’s checking the easiest task off your to-do list, taking one small step towards completing a project, or doing five minutes of exercise. Just keep the ball rolling. Do NOT focus on the ways in which your effort or performance is less than what it used to be, but rather that you’re still making an effort in the first place.
Maintain a Focus on Health
Emotional eating, drinking, and laying on the couch all day are completely understandable responses to times like these, but ultimately, they compound the stress. You know how much better you feel when you maintain some semblance of healthy eating, movement, and sleep, or conversely, how crummy it feels when you let it all slide. By and large, these are variables that you can control even when everything else feels like it’s gone to hell.
Again, I’d encourage you to reassess your standards of success here, adjusting to your current reality. It’s ok if you don’t have the wherewithal to make elaborate dinners or train for a 50k. Resist the temptation to let the pendulum swing completely in the other direction, though. Think of each meal as one small act of productivity and each walk as an accomplishment.
Be in Nature
Few things are as inherently healing and soothing as spending time in nature. Research into the practice of forest bathing documents all sorts of benefits from, essentially, going into the forest (or even just a park) and being mindful. A recent study found that taking “awe walks,” which are simply outdoor walks in which you have the specific intention of experiencing awe, lead older adults to experience more positive emotions and less distress.5
Everything feels worse when you don’t even step outside for days at a time, and that’s easy to do nowadays. You also get the secondary benefits of unplugging. We all need a break from the news cycle and partisan social media posts.
Hang in There
These strategies aren’t just about weathering the current storm. Becoming adept at using them means you’ll also be more resilient in the future. As trite as it may be, hard times can also be times of growth. Knowing this won’t change the unpleasant realities of the current situation, nor protect you from future hardships. Neither does succumbing to the temptation to hide under a weighted blanket until all this is over.
If you’ve ever driven on ice, you know that if your car starts to spin out, you have to steer into it. It does no good to slam on your breaks, jerk the wheel in the other direction, or close your eyes and pretend your car isn’t doing a 360. Instead, hold the wheel steady and slowly regain control. The same goes here. Ultimately, keeping it together boils down to controlling the things you can control and holding it together long enough to weather the storm.