Why Uncertainty Feels So Terrifying, And How To Cope With It


As life continues during the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is becoming clearer: There is so much we still do not know. When will the pandemic end? When will a vaccine become available? When can we resume daily life? Will things ever go back to normal? Will life be completely changed for good?

Scientists and health officials offer some predictions, but almost nothing about this pandemic is certain, except that it could go on for a long while. For many people, especially those who already struggle with anxiety, this uncertainty has been incredibly challenging — especially since the unknowns are literally a matter of life and death.

HuffPost spoke to mental health experts and people who struggle with anxiety to understand why uncertainty is so difficult to navigate in general, and how to cope.

First of all, why does uncertainty feel so damn terrible?

The human body is hard-wired to respond to uncertainty. Jessica Linick, a New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist, tells HuffPost that our brains are designed to evaluate threat and risk — and uncertainty can feel incredibly risky.

“The brain often looks for patterns,” Linick explained, adding that this mechanism is good when circumstances are predictable and make sense. “But in times of uncertainty and unpredictability, our nervous systems are on high alert; they’re always looking for that risk. And when someone’s nervous system is activated that way, it produces a flight or fight response.”

Lauren Hallion, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed, noting that the human brain has evolved over time to pay attention to sudden changes in the environment that could signal a threat.

“In prehistoric times, those threats were sometimes predators, but they were sometimes diseases and viruses like the one we’re experiencing now,” Hallion said. “In other words, predictable environments are usually safe, while unpredictable environments were more likely to include potential dangers.”

Because the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced, many people are struggling with extremely grim “what if?” scenarios.

Uncertainty is rarely fun — but there’s a reason it feels so much worse right now.

While uncertainty, in general, can be anxiety-inducing, it’s fair to say that the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people on a larger scale and in myriad ways.

Lynae Cook, a 30-year-old creative who lives in both Washington and California, has dealt with anxiety for most of her life. She told HuffPost that her mind has been occupied by a variety of unknowns.

“[I worry about] the fate of others and how people will pay their medical bills or afford housing,” she said. “In my personal life, [my anxiety] has manifested around projects that have been put on hold.

Elly Belle, a 25-year-old writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York, said that her anxiety has been “really bad all the time” since the pandemic began.

On top of being worried about myself and the uncertainty of my future, I’m also worried about everyone I know and love. Literally everyone is going through something difficult, whether it’s layoffs or lack of work, illness, or concerns about family,” Belle said. “I am constantly in a state of physical fear.”

Because the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced, and because there seems to be a growing list of abysmal possible outcomes, many people are struggling with extremely grim “what if?” scenarios.

This can bring us to an existential place, where people are asking themselves about mortality [and] human nature,” said Melissa McCormick, a Florida-based licensed mental health counselor who specializes in anxiety and trauma healing.

She added that people who experience common anxiety might find themselves now coping with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia.

Many of us are experiencing survival reactions … these are all visceral and can be intense, even when we are not realizing that’s what is happening in our bodies,” McCormick said.

Here’s how you can cope with uncertainty.

Belle, who has dealt with anxiety since early childhood, explains that uncertainty is always a trigger for her, but she learned at a young age that tragic possibilities are an unavoidable part of life.

“If we latch onto that [uncertainty], we will be in constant despair and anxiety,” she said. “I try to remember, especially in chaotic times, that all we can control is how we treat each other, which is why kindness is so important.

She added that she’s been coping now by engaging in activities that make her happy, like cooking, making tea, listening to podcasts and talking with her therapist.

Likewise, Cook credits her therapist and naturopath for equipping her with successful coping tools.

They taught me to take things in stride, the importance of sitting in your own feelings, and taking time to recharge,” she explained, adding that making lists and using a meditation app have been useful methods as well.

“Sometimes the best coping mechanism to deal with uncertainty is just try to keep yourself from thinking about all the things that you don’t know, and spend as much time as possible on the things you do.”

– Dana Gerber

For Dana Gerber, who has received treatment for her anxiety since the age of 7, the big question mark surrounding what the world will look like post-pandemic has been difficult to process.

“The biggest tool I’ve used is just distracting myself,” the 20-year-old writer from Maryland told HuffPost. She’s found it helpful to simply give her brain a break from worrying. Her distraction tools of choice? Books, Netflix, playing guitar or talking with friends.

Sometimes the best coping mechanism to deal with uncertainty is just try to keep yourself from thinking about all the things that you don’t know, and spend as much time as possible on the things you do,” she said.

There are some cognitive tools therapists teach their patients that you can use to help you deal with uncertainty right now. Linick stresses the value of techniques that help calm a person’s vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the human body and controls the body’s response during periods of rest or relaxation.

“Things that stimulate the vagus nerve can be vocal toning or humming, drinking cold water or putting ice on your face, jaw relaxation or massage, and calming breathwork,” she said, noting to make sure that your exhalations are longer than your inhalations when you’re doing breathing exercises.

Linick also suggested “orientation exercises” to help bring attention outward in the midst of an anxiety spike.

“Name five things in the room that are yellow, or green, or blue,” she offered as an example. “Look out the window and find the furthest thing you can see. Spend time looking at it, and describe it in various ways. This can help transition the focus from inside your body to outside your body.”

Hallion, who has partnered with other mental health experts to create a list of resources for coping with the pandemic, emphasizes the benefits of distraction.

Going for a walk or a run while wearing a mask to protect others and staying 6 feet apart, calling loved ones, finding ways to volunteer for your community without leaving home — those are all strategies that can help distract us from our ‘worry spirals’ and bring us back to the present moment,” Hallion said.

There are also preventive tools to manage anxiety on a regular basis. Linick pointed out that during unpredictable times, it can be helpful for someone to focus on things that can be controlled.

For example, “Today, I’m going to clean my closet,” she said. “Today, I will put away my clothes. That’s something I can control; that’s something I can do. However tiny, those tasks can be quite useful.”

Additionally, Linick is an advocate of meditation, journaling, and movement exercises, while McCormick also recommends art expression and utilizing positive affirmations like ”This is not permanent. I am safe in this moment. I am inherently worthy. I deserve rest.”

"Calling loved ones, finding ways to volunteer for your community without leaving home — those are all strategies that can help distract us from our ‘worry spirals,’" says psychology professor Lauren Hallion.

“Calling loved ones, finding ways to volunteer for your community without leaving home — those are all strategies that can help distract us from our ‘worry spirals,’” says psychology professor Lauren Hallion.

What are some signs that you should seek further help?

As with any mental health issue, safety is key. “If someone feels like they’re going to hurt themselves, or hurt someone else, or they just feel unsafe in their own skin, they should seek help immediately,” Linick said.

If you don’t have access to a therapist, there are still ways to get help, like by contacting a crisis center. You can get in touch with Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255.

But there’s certainly a gray area between manageable anxiety and a mental health crisis. McCormick pointed out some key signs and symptoms to watch out for.

If someone is having panic attacks several times a week, I would say they need significantly more support,” she said, adding that the pandemic has also created a widespread increase in depression. “This may show up as changes in appetite and/or sleep, tearfulness, hopelessness, or thoughts of suicide. Some folks are in homes with unsafe people, so the risk for more safety-related anxiety and depression is also something to note.

Ultimately, you know your body and mind best — but it’s always helpful to seek support at any point, whether it’s from a friend, loved one or therapist. McCormick puts it like this: “If someone feels like their distress is more than what they feel OK with, that’s truly enough to ask for help.

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