Coping with Uncertainty
Uncertainty makes us nervous. I think that is a universal fact of life. The world is currently reeling from coronavirus. We are all in situations of quarantine, lock down, social distancing, self-isolation. People who never did before are working from home, zoom conferencing and learning new types of technology. Businesses are trying to avoid bankruptcy and stay relevant. Record numbers of people are filing for unemployment. People are navigating the uncertainties of homeschooling, financial losses, retirement account losses, cancellation of weddings, funerals, proms, graduations, concerts, sporting events and every other kind of activity.
Some people, like Navy SEALS, covert operatives and astronauts are carefully and purposefully trained to deal calmly with uncertainty. For the rest of us, the more uncertainty we face, the more irrational and erratic our feelings and decisions can become. It seems counterintuitive; it would be more logical if the less information we had, the more careful and rational we would be in acting we’re making decisions. Nope. Uncertainty can make us act irrationally. Reflexively. We all like to be in control, even if the choice made is to voluntarily cede control to someone or something else. But a lot of times we have to give up control for things that are beyond our ability to control. We have no choice. You cannot perceive those situations as a personal failure. When I write that, I am ‘speaking’ from personal, painful experience.
I have multiple sclerosis, a disease that carries with its tremendous uncertainty. MS is, by its actual definition, “an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information in the brain, and between the brain and body.” (nationalmssociety.org). When you have MS, you have to learn to live with massive uncertainty about how the disease will progress, because it is different for everybody. Thinking about that led to me wondering what is it about being chronically ill that might be useful for surviving these uncertain times of Coronavirus, quarantine and social distancing?
When diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or any other chronic, debilitating, incurable illness, uncertainty slams into you Hard. Believe me, MS does, absolutely, suck. MS people go to bed every night wondering what the next day will be like, what symptoms may appear or worsen. It always makes me think about a game show from the 70s and 80s, called Treasure Hunt. I remember watching with great interest as a kid while the contestants ended up selecting a beautifully wrapped box from a whole selection of them and waiting nervously while the host of the show peeked gingerly and secretively into the box.
Everyday living with MS is like that – except what awaits in the box always a clunker, not a prize you would want.
Living with multiple sclerosis means living with uncertainty. Some of us are better at it than others, but there is no right or wrong way. You just have to find some way. Without extra drama, without hysteria. Without becoming dependent on alcohol or other substances. Without falling into depression.
There is uncertainty about disease progression, uncertainty about treatment, uncertainty about causation. Yet, those of us who have it go on living, and surviving. Often thriving. But that only happens when we take ownership of our response to uncertainty.
As we face situations of uncertainty, our brains can push us to overreact, to do anything for the sake of doing something. Or, we can find that uncertainty leaves us incapable of deciding or taking any action at all when inertia takes over. Overreacting and failure to act can both be terribly damaging. When the weight of uncertainty makes decision-making difficult, it can be easy to feel everything is equally uncertain, even though that is very rarely true.
People who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it. In other words, they are people who live in the real world. They don’t paint any situation as better or worse than it actually is, and they analyze facts for what they are. They know that the only thing they really control is their own decision-making process. If you think about it, that is the only rational way to handle the unknown, and the best way to deal with uncertainty.
Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on problems you’re facing, you are awash in negative emotions. I think that is never a good thing. When you focus on taking action to better yourself and your situation, you empower yourself. Don’t allow yourself to become preoccupied with uncertainties. Focus your attention and effort on what you are able to do, in spite of the uncertainties.
I think you have to remain relatively calm to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty. You can tap into your Internal Faith that you will triumph over the uncertainties you face. You can also take certain measures to help achieve that state:
Breathing deeply and slowly triggers the body to stop stressing and start to relax. Concentrating on your breathing can distract your mind from what is bothering you. It can distract you from the uncertainties that can control you. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Hold for a moment. Breathe out slowly through your mouth. Taking a few minutes to focus on your breath will calm you.
Get Enough Sleep
I know this to be true, even though I personally rarely achieve it. Everything seems worse when you’re tired. Uncertainty, stress, anxiety and some medical conditions can lead to insomnia and poor sleep quality. It becomes a vicious cycle. You can’t sleep well, so you end up feeling worse because you’re tired, and because you feel worse you can’t sleep well. Try napping if you need to. Get off any electronic devices earlier. Reduce caffeine intake and use of artificial stimulants. Try essential oils like lavender, valerian, Roman chamomile.
Focus on the Positives
Uncertainty makes us think and worry about negatives, worst case scenarios, potential problems and possible catastrophes. All of that can really increase anxiety and feelings of panic. It is easy to dwell on the negative. But it’s a lot better for you to think about positive aspects. I’m definitely not saying you should stick your head in the sand and ignore reality.
Go for a Walk, and if You Can’t, Then Get Sunshine by a Window
Exercise is just as important as sleep for controlling stress and anxiety caused by uncertainty or anything else. Exercise causes your body to release endorphins that make you feel good and help clear your mind. Some people are disabled, (like me), and walking is just not an option. In that case, being near a window of some kind can provide a helpful dose of natural light. MS has me pretty much stuck at home, so, access to sunlight is extremely important to me.
Find Time to Meditate or Pray
Meditation and prayer have been proven to reduce stress, no matter the root cause of the stress. There was a time when I pictured meditation as something performed by super thin individuals in sunglasses, sandals and love beads, chanting in a monotone while seated in a Lotus position in a room laden with incense. That is an ignorant stereotype. Even a few minutes of sitting quietly and consciously focusing on your breathing is a meditation. There are great guided meditation sessions available on YouTube. And here are some free meditation apps: Insight Timer, Smiling Mind, The Breathing App, Oak, Omvana, Mindfulness Coach and Three Good Things.
Reduce the Number of Negative People in Your Life
I think everybody has at least a few people in life who can make you feel stressed just by being around them. These are people who exacerbate uncertainty, and make you feel uncertain even about yourself. You know who I’m talking about. I realize you often can’t cut these people out of your life completely. But you know who they are! So, make every effort to limit your interactions with them. Consciously try to short-circuit their impact on you.
How do you deal with uncertainty when it affects your life? Please feel free to share – I would love to know!