Coping with Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

Apr 3, 2020

By Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW

The rapid spread of COVID-19—and the unprecedented measures being undertaken to contain it—is evoking a range of difficult emotions for people. One distressing experience that is ubiquitous under the current circumstances is the feeling of uncertainty. Uncertainty is challenging because it threatens a fundamental human quality: our drive for control. The current situation is difficult for everyone, and poses an even greater challenge for those who are struggling with mental health conditions. Let’s take a deeper look at humans’ innate drive for certainty, plus some effective strategies to help cope with the uncertainty we currently face. 

Humans are wired for control

We know from evolutionary science that early humans who preferred certainty tended to pass on their genes more consistently. In other words, they were more likely to survive. For example, early humans who curiously approached large predators were less successful than those who quickly deemed these animals a threat. Fast-forward to today: Difficulty coping with uncertainty has been identified as a key feature of many mental health conditions–particularly anxiety disorders. As one colleague put it recently, “All humans are allergic to uncertainty. Some are just more allergic than others.” Research shows that humans’ preference for certainty is so strong that people will choose negative outcomes that are certain, such as a painful electric shock, over uncertain ones, which might not happen at all. 

With the current global pandemic, there is so much that’s out of your control. You may not be able to visit family members who are ill. You may not be able to leave your house for more than essentials. You’ll probably fall short of unrealistic expectations to simultaneously homeschool your kids, do your job as normal, and keep your house tidy. You may be unable to afford your rent or mortgage next month. You could have the coronavirus and not even know it. All of these facts are deeply unsettling. Combined, they could create the conditions for a mental health crisis.

We’re all adapting to an unprecedented set of circumstances filled with uncertainty and doing our best to survive. And that’s okay.  As you navigate the next weeks and months, here are some questions to ask yourself that are rooted in the science of human behavior and may help you stay grounded.

Am I fighting with reality?

Coping with uncertainty means accepting that there is so much outside of your control. Research shows that simply acknowledging how difficult uncertainty is makes it easier to bear.

This pandemic is revealing is that most of us have been living under an illusion of control. In reality, we can’t control how long we live, how we die, or the health of our loved ones. Even as we take swift and needed action societally to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we can only do so much to control the behavior of those who don’t take the situation seriously. This is a scary reality, but it doesn’t help to deny it.

By coming to terms with how difficult this situation is, we give ourselves the opportunity to more effectively respond to it.  It can be tempting to spend energy on things outside of our control, such as wishing things were different, replaying what more we could have done to prepare, or imagining worst-case scenarios. Ultimately, though, that energy is best focused on the things you can control to keep you and your family safe. 

How can I cultivate a sense of calm?

The human nervous system was designed to respond to situations that pose an immediate danger, giving us the energy and focus needed to eliminate or escape from a threat. Our nervous systems don’t cope well with the threat of prolonged uncertainty, and the health effects of the resulting chronic stress can be significant

Fortunately, there are science-backed steps you can take to calm your nervous system as you face this ongoing uncertainty. Try spending 15 minutes a day practicing mindful breathing, taking a soothing bath, or experiencing the cortisol-reducing effects of petting your cat or dog. Sometimes emotions are so overwhelming that we need a temporary distraction, and that’s okay as long as it doesn’t turn into a harmful pattern of avoidance. Distress tolerance skills from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) help us get through a seemingly intolerable moment and emerge from it more grounded and better able to tackle what’s in front of us. So if you just need a brief reprieve, here are a few quick strategies you can try to distract yourself:

  • Splash your face with cold water or hold an ice cube in your hand for 30 seconds
  • Count backward from 100 by sevens
  • Pick a category (like “animals” or “celebrities”) and go through the alphabet, coming up with examples for each letter

Am I stuck in my mind?

Our minds love trying to analyze, figure out, and predict. While these skills are valuable in so many areas of life, it’s helpful to think of the mind as a hammer that sees every problem as a nail. Because of that, your instinct may be to try to think, read, or scroll your way out of anxiety about COVID-19, despite the futility of doing so. 

Thankfully, you don’t have to follow your mind down every rabbit hole or analyze every thought. If you notice that your mind is busy with worry and anticipation, take a few minutes to slow down and pay attention to your breath or follow a guided meditation such as the classic “Leaves on a Stream” meditation. Trust that when there is a need for problem-solving, your mind will be ready and eager to contribute, but don’t let it convince you that the only way to stay safe is to remain caught up in your thoughts.

Am I being kind to myself?

According to research, difficult events that happen in the context of uncertainty are experienced as more negative than they would be otherwise. So if you encounter a setback or make a mistake during this especially uncertain time, don’t be surprised if you take it harder than you normally would. The skill of self-compassion—acknowledging your own suffering and offering kindness rather than criticism—is particularly important in moments like this. If this is new to you, there couldn’t be a better time to learn.

Self-compassion involves a few simple steps, according to the foremost expert on the topic,  Kristin Neff. First, acknowledge that you are suffering, without judgment. Take a deep breath, maybe place your hand on your heart, and say softly to yourself, “This is really hard for me” or, “I’m struggling with a lot of anxiety right now.” Second, consider how what you’re up against is part of the human condition or something that many others are experiencing. With billions of people facing the spread of the coronavirus and the disruptions needed to contain it, there is so much common humanity to be found right now. Lastly, allow whatever thoughts and feelings show up to simply be, without trying to fight or suppress them. Practicing self-compassion during this time is a deeply courageous and powerful act. 

What is most important to me?

Uncertainty is most emotionally disruptive when it threatens something you care about. The more you care, the more it hurts. Our values are rooted in the things we care about most. So it’s worth taking time to consider what you can learn from this crisis about the values you hold close.

For example, if you have had a revelation about the importance of social cooperation or the wisdom of listening to experts during this pandemic, these are lessons that will likely extend well beyond this situation. This may also be an opportunity to learn how to balance the different roles you play in life, such as partner, parent, employee, or friend, with flexibility and realism. Or, maybe this situation is helping remind you of the people who are most important to you. 

Connecting with and acting on our values, despite the presence of obstacles, is an essential component of evidence-based psychological treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which can help us recover from or stave off depression and other mental health problems. Consider using this list of values as a starting point, and see if any stand out to you, particularly in these unprecedented circumstances. Consider writing a list of your own top values and how you intend to live by them as you’re adapting to this “new normal.”

Do I need more support?

Do you feel overwhelmed? Scared about the future? Do you want to talk to someone about what you’re going through? These are all signs that you could benefit from seeking professional mental health support. With a network of mental health coaches and therapists you can see from the safety of your home, Lyra is here to help.

 

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DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW, is clinical manager of the Mental Health Coaching Program and a therapist in the Blended Care Therapy Program at Lyra Health. He serves on the board of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, and provides training and supervision in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).