One of the biggest stressors in modern life is uncertainty, and if there is one thing the pandemic has made painfully obvious, it’s this: uncertainty is unavoidable. The question is, how do we navigate the fear uncertainty stimulates and still keep our wits about us? It all comes down to understanding the difference between fear that protects you from a real and present danger, and fear that just keeps you stuck in an endless loop of anxiety and tension because it’s based on what you imagine instead of what’s real.
This dilemma is humorously captured by 19th century author Mark Twain in his character Huckleberry Finn, who declares:
“I’ve been through some terrible things in my life.
And some of them actually happened!”
What Twain is talking about is the difference between the fear that’s based on objective reality and fear that’s based on something you make up.
For example, let’s say you’re crossing the street, and seemingly out of nowhere you see a bus heading straight for you. Definitely scary! But here’s the interesting thing: have you noticed in situations like this, you don’t stop to think about what you’re going to do?
And why is this?
Because your body already knows what to do! It knows to get the hell out of the way!!! You’re not going to stop to analyze what’s happening, like the driver’s motives, or what might happen to your job if you get hit by a bus. Your body just takes action before your mind has time to think anything about it!
This is because your brain is highly specialized to respond to physical threats in your environment. The fight, flight, or freeze response is certainly effective in these kinds of situations. Unfortunately, your brain is hardwired to grab for this, no matter what the threat is. So, if the ‘threat’ is the uncertain future, using fight, flight or freeze as the solution is like using a sledge hammer to mash potatoes!
Given the fact that uncertainty is an undeniable part of modern life, it’s clear we need to find a different set of tools to master the anxiety and fear triggered by it.
Part of the problem is that our Stone Age brains can’t tell the difference between a clear and present danger and a threat we’ve manufactured in our minds just because we’re uncertain.
When this happens, awareness is the key to interrupting the mental storyline. But if you’re not paying close attention, all the stress hormones coursing through your veins will start making your choices for you.
All anxiety is fear of the future. As we’ve seen, fear that arises in the present moment out of an immediate danger we know instinctively how to respond to. Fear of the future and fear of uncertainty are the same thing. So how do we respond when we are faced with fear of uncertainty?
Nature has provided a solution. It gave us a brain with a negative bias. Our brain is far more ready to believe bad things will happen in the future than it is to simply be present with the uncertainties inherent in any situation. This makes a lot of sense if you consider the Stone Age environment it was designed for, an environment filled with threats to human survival.
To illustrate why Nature chose this negative bias as the best thing for that time, you can look at it this way: if you’re moving through the grass and hear an unexpected rustling sound, and you make up that it’s a lion but it turns out to be just a breeze, there’s really no loss. But if you make up that it’s a breeze, and it turns out to be a lion… OOPS! There goes your chance to reproduce and pass on your genes!
If you’re thinking your biology of a default negative bias works against you in emotionally triggering situations, you’d be right.
Because it can’t tell the difference, your brain processes the threats you make up in the same way it processes real ones. But here’s the rub: the greater the uncertainty we face, the more likely it is that our minds will fabricate something dreadful to fill the gap in our knowledge, even when we really don’t know what will happen.
This isn’t to say that the pandemic is not a real threat. But it isn’t an immediate threat, like a lion waiting in the grass. It is an invisible, lingering threat that can have any number of potential repercussions to society and your way of life, even if you never personally get sick.
If you’ve ever had your mind fill with the most dreadful outcomes it can fabricate, you’ve definitely discovered that your brain is actually more at ease imagining an apocalyptic scenario than it is simply sitting with uncertainty.
Uncertainty in modern life is no longer tied to our survival in the same way it was in the Paleolithic. The reactive brain that sees even emotional threats as survival issues no longer works in our best interest.
Clearly, if we are able to calm down and respond rationally to uncertainty, it would be in our long-term best interests. But in order to calm down enough to wait and see before acting or making a decision, we have to master the anxiety and fear triggered by our Stone-Age brain’s built-in response.
Awareness is the key, and it starts with paying attention to what the brain is up to when you’re under stress. If you’re not paying close attention, all the stress hormones coursing through your veins will start making your choices for you. And adrenaline is definitely not the best arbiter of which solution you should turn to, especially when the problem may be at least partly made up. Instead, you need to cultivate awareness and willingness to be present with uncertainty.
Here is a short activity designed to help you embrace uncertainty without reacting. The main thing to remember is that your brain hates not-knowing and will resist it. You may find that while completing the following four sentences seems like a simple enough activity, it is actually a real challenge.
Get a piece of paper or download this worksheet.
1. I am anxious about…
Maybe it’s the effect the pandemic will have on your job security, your granddaughter’s future, your father’s heart condition or all of the above. Write down whatever topic you are most anxious about right now, like your finances, your granddaughter’s education, or your father’s heart condition.
2. The facts are…
For example: My coworker was let go last week; my employer told me she could guarantee my wage for at least 3 months; my granddaughter is failing 3rd grade; my granddaughter’s internship has been postponed; my father has heart surgery scheduled for Feb. 20th; my father started taking heart disease pills and is waiting to see how he responds to them.
The goal here is to get your feet firmly on the ground of objective reality. Use numbers when appropriate and avoid stating emotions or abstractions. The facts are always the starting point for making any sustainable change.
3. The uncertainty that is causing me to be afraid is…
This sentence can be a little tricky because I’m asking you NOT to speculate here. For example, if you’re terrified your son won’t be able to afford his mortgage because it’s unclear when he’ll be able to go back to work, what I want you to write down would be something like this: It’s uncertain how my son will be impacted by the closure of the restaurant where he works, or: I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to work.
4. I accept the uncertainty about… just for now.
Here you might write: I accept the uncertainty about my son’s future, just for now.
Now, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “I accept this uncertainty in my life, just for now.” Next, I want you to observe how you feel in your body. Can you notice any change?
Are you a little less tense? A little more at ease?
Maybe even slightly less afraid?
This exercise is powerful because it’s a way to stay more honest with yourself and more fact-based. It also reminds you to come back to the moment. For me, the critical element is the piece about accepting the uncertainty just for now. If I’m really triggered, I might have to repeat the sentence a thousand times a day. But it really helps.
Now that you’ve seen how to use these four sentence starters as a tool for embracing uncertainty just for now, I hope you’ll be able to start dealing with uncertainty in a more self-empowering, constructive way that grounds you in objective reality and interrupts the temptation to use your imagination to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Use this exercise any time anxiety hits. It’s such a simple, powerful way to get back into the now-moment where your life is actually happening. If you’re willing to have the future be what it is—uncertain—then you can be anchored here, in the now-moment, where life is unfolding, the facts are emerging, and your best choices are presenting themselves.
Take good care : )