MENTAL HEALTH

Coping with uncertainty in the pandemic

It is possible to become more resilient and find opportunities for personal growth during a time of great uncertainty. (
It is possible to become more resilient and find opportunities for personal growth during a time of great uncertainty. (Getty Images/TNS)

As it has become clear that the coronavirus pandemic is here for the foreseeable future, we’re all learning to live in a cloud of uncertainty: When can we venture out safely? Visit loved ones? Pay our bills? Find a job?

Feeling uncertain can provoke anxiety and other unhealthy effects, but at the same time, research shows that people are resilient and can learn to cope and even thrive in times of turmoil.

Whether this prolonged period of uncertainty will leave lasting scars or provide an impetus to better adapt to unpredictable events depends in part on individual circumstances — for instance, whether you still have a source of income or you or your loved ones become sick.

Coping styles also matter — people who react to challenges by planning everything out may struggle when the future is so unpredictable.

Fear of the unknown

We don’t naturally like unpredictability, says Jelena Kecmanovic, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

“It’s fear of the unknown,” she says.

Uncertainty can provoke a vicious cycle of anxiety, says Jack Nitschke, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“Our brains help us get good at what we’re doing,” he says. Whatever thought patterns we’re having, the brain fortifies the neural pathways (that connect the nervous system’s brain cells) for doing this. And, as Nitschke’s research has shown, that means that if we’re feeling anxious, “the brain is strengthening the neuropathways for anxiety.”

Handling uncertainty

Psychologists have several tools for measuring how well people handle uncertainty.

For instance, the intolerance of uncertainty scale asks people to rate how much they agree with such statements as “uncertainty makes life intolerable” and “my mind can’t be relaxed if I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

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Intolerance of uncertainty is a risk factor for many disorders involving anxiety, from obsessive compulsive disorder to depression, eating disorders and generalized anxiety, Kecmanovic says.

Beth Meyerowitz, a professor of psychology and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California who has studied how people cope with the uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis, has found that people with a strong intolerance for uncertainty were more likely to engage in avoidance coping strategies, such as preventing themselves from thinking about or experiencing the feelings they’re having, and that those methods of coping were associated with higher degrees of emotional distress.

Planners may feel more anxiety

Some people are more naturally tolerant of uncertainty than others. Having a “planner” personality can predispose someone to feeling extra anxiety in response to uncertainty, says Lacie Barber, an occupational health psychologist at San Diego State University.

“Trying to exert control on an uncontrollable situation can leave you feeling even more stressed,” she says.

Some people can’t sleep the night before a road trip unless they have everything prepacked and every detail about the route and playlist planned out.

But the people who cope best with uncertainty are the ones who have a more flexible coping style, Barber says.

Accept what you can’t control

Experts also say it is important to recognize the things you can’t control and accept they are out of your hands.

We’ve all heard the saying about having the serenity to accept the things you can’t change, courage to change the things you can and also wisdom to know the difference.

“That’s coping flexibility,” Barber says. She advises people to diversify their coping strategies and then use the one that best fits a particular problem. In some cases, it’s better to focus on changing the situation by adjusting your environment (wearing a mask or staying home). But in other cases, it might be better to change your reaction to the uncertainty by practicing mindfulness or self-compassion.

Address individual problems

Another helpful strategy, Meyerowitz says, is to break the problem down into its component parts. Figure out what you’re anxious about and try to find ways to deal with those specific parts.

Anxiety about COVID-19 might be due to feelings of isolation during stay-at-home orders, worries about losing a job or getting laid off, concerns about how to manage the children’s education or exhaustion because of problems sleeping, Meyerowitz says. It’s easier to address these problems individually.

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Depending on how they cope, some people — kids and adults — may also have lasting anxiety issues.

When you think of uncertainty as a danger, you build up neural connections that support this association, Nitschke says. Instead, he says, the better thing to do is build neural connections that help you associate uncertainty with an “acceptance that the future is unknowable, sometimes bringing good outcomes and sometimes bad, which we generally can’t do much about and usually get through.”

Becoming more resilient

Research by George Bonanno at Columbia University shows that most people are very resilient, even after going through traumatic events, Kecmanovic says.

“Times are hard, but this is also an opportunity for us to learn to deal with uncertainty and become more resilient,” Kecmanovic says.

It can force you to rethink what’s important to you and how you find meaning in life, Meyerowitz says. In many cases, people may view this as a positive upshot.

Some people view uncertainty as a threat or a loss, while others seem more inclined to view it as a challenge, Meyerowitz says. The aspects of the pandemic that can be met as challenges may also provide opportunities for personal growth, she says.

The data suggest that people who recover from cancer do not, by and large, experience post-traumatic stress disorder or other lasting problems, Meyerowitz says. “The quality of their lives recovers.”

People who have survived a cancer diagnosis often say that they’ve derived unexpected benefits from the experience.

“They say things like, ‘I don’t let the little trivial stuff get me down anymore,’” Meyerowitz says. “You can come out of it feeling like you were stronger than you thought.”

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