The way to Deal With the Nervousness of Uncertainty

If there’s one defining feature of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s uncertainty. Will there be a vaccine? When can schools safely reopen? Will I still have a job next week? Should I book a spring vacation abroad? A crisis that we’d all hoped would be short-lived is dragging on indefinitely, and the list of unanswered questions keeps growing.

“I’ve started thinking about our current situation as being marked by two pandemics,” Kate Sweeny says. “The viral one, of course, but also a psychological pandemic of uncertainty.” A professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, Sweeny specializes in understanding how people cope with ambiguity. All her research points towards one conclusion: We don’t cope very well.

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“Waiting periods are marked by two existentially challenging states: We don’t know what’s coming, and we can’t do much about it,” Sweeny explains. “Together, those states are a recipe for anxiety and worry. People would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news than the anxiety of remaining in limbo.”

That’s what researchers at three institutions in the UK found in a 2013 experiment, when they attached electrodes to 35 subjects and asked them to choose between receiving a sharp shock immediately or waiting for a milder one. The vast majority chose the more painful option, just to get it out of the way. “It’s counterintuitive,” admits Giles Story, one of the academics behind the study. “But it’s a testament to how anxiety-inducing and miserable it can be to have things looming in the future.”

It may be counterintuitive, but it’s actually something we see play out again and again in the scientific literature. Whether it’s receiving a cancer diagnosis, finding out a round of IVF was unsuccessful, or discovering that you failed an exam, for many of us, unequivocally bad news is easier to deal with than the ambiguous waiting period that precedes it. Knowing what we’re dealing with, even if it’s crappy, gives us some agency. Uncertainty leaves us scrambling to regain an element of control—by hoarding toilet paper, for example.

Ironically, while actions like these might provide temporary relief, they can have the opposite effect in the long term, sending our anxiety levels through the roof. “People who struggle with uncertainty engage in behaviors to try to feel more certain, like taking their temperature repeatedly,” says Ryan Jane Jacoby, a staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “But these actions only serve to perpetuate uncertainty in the long run, and they can really take a toll on your mental health, as they start to take up more time and energy.”

So if stockpiling a year’s supply of toilet paper isn’t going to ease the anxiety that comes with living in a state of limbo, what will? Answering that question involves understanding why exactly we struggle so much with uncertainty. According to Mark Freeston, a professor of clinical psychology at Newcastle University in the UK, it’s all to do with evolution. “It’s of no use for a newborn to understand where danger is, because they can’t do anything about it. What is useful is understanding how to find signs of safety.” That means learning to recognize the people or surroundings we know keep us secure—and being suspicious of the ones we aren’t familiar with.

“As evolutionary psychologists have argued, being intolerant of uncertainty has survival value,” Freeston says. “So instead of wondering why some people struggle to deal with uncertainty, the better question to ask is, how are some people able to cope with it?” The answer—which Freeston and the other experts I spoke to have spent their entire professional careers working on—could help make long periods of uncertainty more bearable. Here are some of the coping mechanisms they’ve found can help.

Stop With the Mental Time Travel

When you’re dealing with uncertain situations, it’s tempting to both fixate on things you’ve done in the past—could last week’s trip to the grocery store be to blame for my sore throat today?—and worry about what the future will look like. “During waiting periods, I would always find myself doing a lot of mental time travel, thinking back to what I could have done differently, and playing out various future scenarios,” says Sweeny. Dwelling excessively on what could have been and what might be—ruminating, to use the technical term—is exhausting, and unless it is brought under control, can trigger depression and anxiety.

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