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?

 

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