Creating certainty when you’re feeling uncertain

I was at the grocery store the other day and the woman at the checkout asked me, “How long do you think this [coronavirus] is going to go on?”

This is a common question I have received during this time with COVID-19. Ultimately, most of us are wondering how to resolve this feeling of uncertainty.

The truth is, it may never go away completely. (What if that was okay?)

However, there are some things that we can do to help ease the feeling of uncertainty, especially if it has been distracting and causing us anxiety. I’ll cover the simplest approach today.

If you have limited time, I suggest you just focus on this one thing you can do. If you’re interested to think about it more deeply, read on.

When I talk about uncertainty here, I’m not talking about the transient uncertainty that indicates we need to gather information.

 

Take the example of the first day of being an intern. You had a general knowledge of things, but there were a lot of unknowns and a lot at stake. As a result, you took extra time, you double-checked things, you used checklists, you talked to your senior and attendings, you stayed late if needed. All of that increased awareness and caution in that situation was protective. Uncertainty in that situation though was limited to that experience. Though we remained diligent as we gained skills and knowledge, that degree of hyperattention to the situation slowly diminished as we advanced through residency and became attendings.

 

Here I am talking about the ongoing uncertainty as our minds imagine the unknowns of our future, the uncertainty that causes us to feel anxious and paralyzed.

This is the key that I want to highlight– the idea that it’s our constant attention to the future that perpetuates the feeling of paralyzing uncertainty. If you want to experience less of it, focus on the present. Bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Define what you do know. All that we can know for sure (the way our human mind perceives it at least) is what is happening right now. Make a list of all the things you know are for certain, in this moment. If you are feeling a certain way, note that sensation in the body and ask yourself what thought in your mind was causing it. Acknowledge that.

This is the first step to addressing the uncertainty. 

What is uncertainty?

Uncertainty is an unsettled feeling about our future that comes from an idea in our minds: that we don’t know all of the potential outcome(s) in a situation, and that we don’t know the exact probabilities of each of those outcomes.

When I state it that way, it makes me say, “So what then?”, because think about all the uncertainty that we have in our lives usually. We just don’t focus on it and think about it all the time.

Here’s why it matters

Survival concerns, which are triggered by situations like COVID-19, direct us to stay safe and alive. Maybe we want some additional comforts and pleasures too.

However, we view uncertainty as a bad thing, as we see it as a barrier to having fulfilled needs and desires, which we believe are necessary to feel secure and in control. This is our ultimate goal – to feel secure and in control. Uncertainty can further sabotage us, as we get stuck or act with caution beyond the point of being self-protective.

Ultimately, being alive, not being sick, traveling in the community without social isolation, traveling without restrictions, kids going to school, going out to eat, etc.— these are all circumstances. Remember, circumstances don’t cause us to feel secure and in control, our thoughts and beliefs do.

Therefore, another way of working with uncertainty is to not view it as an ongoing sign of threat.

Recognize it’s a feeling that comes from a thought in your mind, and honestly ask yourself if there is a real problem, or if you are creating a problem in your mind alone. Is it worth it to you to spend time worrying about something that could possibly happen, when what is actually happening is just fine?

Some helpful questions you can ask yourself?

  1. Why have I decided that it is so important for me to know what will happen?
  2. How can I create what I want for my future, based on the certain knowledge I have now?
  3. What would it look like to simultaneously live with uncertainty and confidence in my ability to thrive through this experience?

 

Exploring Mental Models Through COVID-19: Part 1

Mental models are helpful ways to understand our thinking, especially when it comes to decision making. The fact that we have patterned ways of understanding the world is a neutral thing, but in a given situation, it can be helpful to evaluate what models we’re using to assess the situation, and the balance of desired versus undesired outcomes that result. 

In part 1 of this presentation, we’ll be discussing the mental models of Trust, Social Proof, and Scarcity.

When the curriculum gets tough…

The scenario –

During this time when children are home from school due to COVID-19, many parents are working from home as well and wondering how to stay productive as both workers and parents. Parents are also placing a lot of pressure on themselves to keep the kids on track.

The situation is not anything most of us (or any of us) have experienced before, especially for the duration we anticipate, yet we somehow want to do it all. We are trying to create the same result we had before – keeping up the same level of job productivity working from home, while providing the kids with a similar learning experience and performance. It certainly may be possible, but it redefining our goals, including what we want to see for ourselves and our families, may be helpful in the given circumstances. By deciding what is most important to us now, and then aligning the available resources (including time, money, physical/mental/emotional energy) toward our goals, we can find more fulfillment.

It also may help focus on the idea of “sufficiency” – the idea of “enough”. That we are enough. That what we are doing is enough. That what are children is doing enough. If we do our best, we can choose to see that as enough. It usually is.

Here’s an example: Kids are at home from school while you are working from home, due to stay-at-home recommendations during COVID-19. The schools send guidance to you and/or your kids through email.

Thoughts that may come up for you:
“What I’m doing for my kids now might affect them in the long-term.”

“There isn’t enough structure.”
“I don’t want to get overly involved.”
“There is too much time that could easily be wasted.”

 

Approaches that can help:

  • Reframing: If you are thinking that there is a lack of structure, question that thought. How might it be that the opposite is true? Can believing that there is structure help open up your mind to how you can help your children more?
  • Letting go of scarcity: Notice the scarcity (idea of “not enough”) in the above thoughts.
    • I’m not doing enough to keep them on track.
    • There’s not enough structure.
    • The kids aren’t doing enough.
  • Keeping things light: What if the things that we saw as problems weren’t really problems? Example – What if it might be okay that the kids don’t spend their whole day on schoolwork or “productive” activity? Could you look at this situation playfully or laugh at it? We don’t really have to allow the kids to go the whole day without direction. However, letting go of the belief that lack of perceived structure is bad may let us approach our kids from a calmer space. They might then be more responsive to our suggestions. We’ll be more at ease.

 

In the months of April and May 2020, I’m offering free group coaching for physicians and health professionals on Tuesday evenings (EST time zone). Interested? Email me at info@physicianwellnesscoaching.com to join my email list and get the registration link. 

How to Gain Control of Media Consumption During COVID-19

Overconsumption of Information Relating to COVID-19 (and in general)

The problem –

It’s normal these days to be consumed by COVID-19 news, scientific updates, and social media posts. Our brains are wired to look for threats and problems, and we are constantly bombarded with ideas that create a sense of fear and anxiety. So, we look for solutions by trying to keep up with the constant flow of information. This behavior can also turn into an unproductive distraction, when we feel out of control of our situations.

What happens as a result?

  • We become further absorbed in all the information.
  • Things appear worse in our minds than they really are.
  • We are less effective at creating solutions to the problem we see with COVID-19, and less effective at solving the problems we’re good at solving.

The solutions can include –

  • Identifying the thoughts and beliefs that are creating feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, sense of being out of control, etc. that are driving the unproductive behavior.
  • Acknowledging your current experience that is causing you suffering and accept that it is okay and normal to feel this way. Process what is going on for you.
  • Deciding if and when you are ready to shift to create a new outcome – e.g. one of controlled deliberate consumption of information with the purpose of putting it to some use (e.g. to stay appropriately informed on necessary updates, to aide decision-making, etc.). You also aim to create a situation where you show up doing your best work, because that’s what the world needs right now. You decide what it means to do your best work.
  • Action items such as: creating an intention to control consumption of media, choosing sources more carefully, setting limits to consumption, focusing on priorities, having times that media is off-limits.
  • Reframing your perspective of the situation to create feelings that help you stay in-line with the above action items.

Example thought: I can learn what I need to learn and continue to focus on contributing through my strengths and other interests.

Feelings this thought may create: calm, excited, motivated, in control

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Join my e-mail list to find out about free group coaching that I am offering weekly to physicians and other health professionals.

This is an opportunity to learn and grow.

COVID-19 is a reality in our lives and many people, myself included, have had to learn how to manage more intense emotions, especially negative emotions.

Not only that, but it may seem for some that life is on hold, that we have to wait for all of this to be over for life to go on.

But, life is happening right now.

I want to show you that even though our life circumstances have changed, life is continuing to go on.

We have to continue on and make this experience a part of our life story.

We get to decide what our attitudes will be.

We get to decide if we show up with compassion, love, and patience.

We get to decide what can be created through all of this..

COVID-19 is a circumstance, one that is helping to bring to the surface so many of the things that challenged us before, now in a more obvious or intense way.

This makes it the perfect time to understand ourselves and to use this as an opportunity for growth.

I plan to regularly post here the lessons learned as I reflect on coaching sessions and conversations I’ve had. I will focus on those topics that seem to be a common theme among physicians and parents.

We can all learn from each other.