Not Knowing What Comes Next: Four Ways to Manage Uncertainty and Safeguard Mental Health


By Zana Busby


Not Knowing What Comes Next: Four Ways to Manage Uncertainty and Safeguard Mental Health

Life is full of change and as the coronavirus outbreak has shown, life can change very quickly and in unpredictable ways!

A year on from lockdown, the chance of getting back to what we considered our “normal life” is still very much up in the air. Especially when we are being warned to expect the possible third Covid wave in summer. Yes, the four-stage plan to lift lockdown restrictions has been put in motion, and more than 25 million people have received the first dose of vaccine in the UK. However, there's still uncertainty hanging around about when the pandemic is going to be eradicated.  

Human beings are curious by nature so we prefer to know what’s around the corner because our minds are hardwired to crave security and predictability. At this unprecedented time, we share the same questions and worries:  When will the pandemic end? Will life ever return to normal? What if the lockdown continues in summer? And we also worry about our jobs, finances, relationships, and of course, physical and mental health.

Usually, when we have questions but are left without definitive answers, uncertainty kicks in and this can lead to significant discomfort producing negative feelings. Different negative emotions such as worry, anger, doubt, sadness, restlessness, and irritability can have an impact on our daily life and how we behave. In many cases, an inability to cope with uncertainty can also affect our mental health and general wellbeing.

Uncertainty may initiate different psychological conditions

Humans differ in terms of how much uncertainty they can tolerate. While no one can predict the future with 100% certainty, some of us can tolerate a lot of uncertainty, whereas for others tolerating uncertainty is highly uncomfortable and distressing. People with a high tolerance level tend to think that even if bad things happen, they can cope with them. The opposite is true for those who find it difficult to tolerate uncertainty. 

As we continue to navigate the current pandemic, the spike in anxiety disorders and depression is affecting the quality of life of many people, especially the people who have a very low tolerance of uncertainty. Therefore, if you’re one of them, it’s important to learn and practice strategies to manage and control uncertainty stress.

Signs that point to a low tolerance of uncertainty

It’s in our human nature that we want to feel safe, and have a sense of control over our lives and well-being. However, we simply can’t control everything. There are only a few things in life that we can control including what we think, how we react, and what actions we choose. However, if you’re often stressed out and excessively evaluating the thread off between avoiding potential threat and exploring it because there might be a payoff, you may also recognize the following patterns:

  • Seeking constant reassurance from others that everything will be okay;
  • Associating uncertainty with bad things happening;
  • Procrastinating and staying in your comfort zone;
  • Difficulty making decisions based on fear of negative outcomes;
  • Searching for perfect solutions to less than perfect life situations.

Four ways to improve your ability to tolerate uncertainty

Everything in life has an expiry date, so does the current pandemic. And while we cannot predict with certainty the exact date of when the pandemic will end, we can certainly learn how to better tolerate uncertainty.

1. Accept the fact that uncertainty is part of life. The pandemic just highlights this fact. Instead of searching for predictability by trying to control and eliminate uncertainty, start practicing cognitive restructuring. There are many automatic negative thoughts surrounding uncertainty that increase anxiety levels. Once you start working through your anxious thoughts and challenge them with more realistic thoughts, you’ll get more comfortable with uncertainty.

2. Identify problems that you can solve versus those that are outside of your control. Write down all of your personal concerns and think of strategies that can be used for each type of problem. This brainstorming process will not only help you tolerate your current emotions, but it will lead to creating an action plan to reduce stress and anxiety.

3. Focus on the here and now. Do you tend to get sucked into the past and the future, by ruminating and anticipating? Cultivate a habit of living in the present moment by practicing mindfulness. Breathing exercises, yoga, progressive relaxation, as well as mindful walking in nature, can help decrease anxiety and increase your tolerance of uncertainty.

4. Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. If you find yourself struggling with uncertainty stress, anxiety, depression, or any other mental disorder, you may find that evidence-based methods of treatment such as CBT (Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy) or similar talking therapies may be just what you need to help you cope with the uncertainty and the associated psychological conditions.