Stress caused by uncertainty can be paralyzing.

We are living under unprecedented uncertainty. There is a good reason for stress, anxiety, and jangling nerves.

Your brain perceives uncertainty as unsafe and potentially painful. Whether the situation is predictably positive or predictably negative, your brain prefers something familiar to something unfamiliar.

Under stress, our brains depend on instinct rather than rational thought because the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking is busy dealing with the psychological reaction to stress. This reaction impedes productivity and can create a paralyzing loop of anxiety.

We can’t alleviate all stress and wouldn’t want to even if we could.

Some stress is natural and necessary; it gives us the zing of energy to get things done — the zing results from the hormone cortisol flooding the system when the body detects danger or stress. Cortisol quickens reactions, increases pulse and blood pressure, and even thickens the blood (to prevent bleeding to death in case of injury).

Trouble comes when that zing becomes a constant thrum, continually triggering the cortisol response rather than allowing it to ebb and flow as we need it.

High cortisol levels reduce productivity and limit critical thought.

Our hardwired reaction to feeling unsafe is to protect ourselves and avoid pain. One of the most disastrous effects of chronic high stress is that it blocks critical and creative thought. In other words, the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking is busy dealing with the perceived risk of an unpredictable situation. Our brains don’t multitask; they focus on only one thing at a time and then have to switch to the next task. This task-switching impedes productivity and creates a paralyzing loop of anxiety.

You can’t just grit your teeth through unrelenting uncertainty. Don’t beat yourself up for having a natural reaction; you aren’t weak, a bad person, a lousy time manager, or lazy—you are stressed.

So, what should you do about all of this stress caused by uncertainty?

Here are four tips for coping with uncertainty and limiting your stress:

1. Notice and accept the natural reaction to uncertainty.

Staring at a blank computer screen, unable to engage your brain, can be a big clue that you are experiencing a stress reaction to uncertainty. Recognize if thoughts of what could happen rob paralyze you — this is a natural response to the unknown. Pay attention to the signs of your stress level rising, such as:

Physical signs:

  • headaches or migraines
  • tense muscles
  • stomach upset
  • decrease in sex drive, more painful than usual periods, or impotence
  • faster than average heart rate
  • loss of appetite
  • trouble sleeping

Behavioral signs:

  • eating more than usual
  • drinking or taking drugs to “take the edge off.”

Cognitive signs:

  • muddled thinking
  • forgetting details or appointments
  • indecision
  • making unusual mistakes
  • lack of focus
  • poor decision-making

Emotional signs:

  • out-of-character emotional responses
  • feeling anxious
  • finding little joy in things you used to enjoy
  • constant worry

When you notice the signs of stress, please take steps to address it. The strategies below will help.

2. Get help in uncertain times, don’t go it alone!

Building a circle of support when you are facing uncertainty is crucial. In my experience, you may be surprised at whom you can rely on in challenging times. Good friends may not be equipped to support you, while acquaintances may step up and become lifelines. You may also need professional help to weather the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges.

Many people dealing with crises shut down emotionally. They stop feeling anything. This, from the outside, may seem like capability in action. On the contrary, it may be a sign that the person has pulled so far into themselves that they aren’t even noticing they need help. I often say that I don’t have letters after my name, and you shouldn’t confuse my comments with medical advice. But suppose you or someone in your life are experiencing signs like the ones listed below (which, again, are not intended to diagnose or treat mental illness). In that case, I encourage you to consult with your doctor or a trained psychologist or psychiatrist:

  • People noticing your poor performance at work
  • Deteriorating relationships (having difficulty understanding others)
  • Withdrawing from friends or family
  • Confused thoughts
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Daily use of alcohol or drugs to deal with stress
  • Having trouble completing daily living tasks such as bathing or feeding yourself
  • Not sleeping three or more nights per week for several weeks
  • Thoughts of “giving up” or harming yourself
  • Thoughts or plans of suicide or hurting others

Seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness. Still, the stigma of mental illness and the complexities of the mental health system often create barriers, which makes getting help harder.

Most of us don’t discuss seeing a therapist with our friends and family, but we probably should. Talking about mental health normalizes it and makes getting help easier for others. If we talked about it, we’d discover that many of us have sought professional help at some point to deal with grief, relationship issues, stress, clinical conditions, or dependency. I put together a list of up-to-date mental health resources.

3. Focus on what is possible rather than dwelling on what is difficult.

While going through a significant crisis, we often dwell on what is difficult and what didn’t meet our expectations. Focusing on the negative is easy to do when everything seems to be wrong. After my heart attack, I remembered something my father used in his practice as a psychologist. The concept of “awfulizing”—he made up the word—describes what happens when the rug is pulled out from underneath you and you are pulled into a cycle of thinking everything is terrible:

  • The entire situation sucks.
  • It’s not getting better.
  • It likely will never get better.
  • There isn’t a way out.
  • And, well, it’s just awful.

“Quit your awfulizing!” he would say. When caught in the downward spiral of awfulizing, it is hard not to feel out of control. The way out of the spiral is to find something you CAN control.

As we all deal with the unrest overseas, tensions in our own country, and a lingering pandemic, there are many things we can’t control. But there are things we can control. Some things are possible rather than difficult.

  • We can control the tidiness of our living space.
  • We can control how we engage with our loved ones.
  • We can control the care we give ourselves.

4. Sip media; don’t gulp.

Constantly scrolling through Facebook or watching non-stop television news coverage keeps your stress reaction firing. There are good reasons why the daily barrage of media inputs leaves us with jangled nerves and increased stress. We aren’t just passively receiving all those messages and images; our brains are figuring out how to become part of them.

Constant exposure to disturbing news increases your stress, whether or not you are actively watching or listening. Limit your exposure by:

  • Recognizing media is designed to keep you tuned in. From the music and graphics to the carefully chosen words, television and radio news sources create emotional reactions to maintain the audience.
  • Choosing your engagement. Staying informed is essential; however, constant exposure isn’t productive. A newspaper is less anxiety-producing than a sensationalized television report or your Facebook newsfeed. Reading, rather than viewing or listening, allows you to be informed without engaging with emotionally sensationalized content. Select two or three trusted sources and check in a couple of times per day. If something significant happens, you will know about it. (For example, we received a text alert when our state declared a shelter-in-place order.)

5. Celebrate all victories.

No matter how small, a win is a win. As we all adjust to staying home and changes in our daily lives, celebrating even the most minor accomplishments shifts the focus to moving forward.

Recognizing a job well done, a mess cleaned up, a problem avoided, or an issue endured refocuses your attention on the positive.

Our brains focus on the negative to protect and prepare us for the things that can go bad. That negative focus can sometimes be helpful but staying focused on what could go wrong or is difficult increases psychological stress. Shifting the focus as often as possible to something positive helps relieve the stress created by the negative focus.

Here are some examples of small victories:

  • Did you shower today? AWESOME!
  • Did you clean out your email inbox? Good job!
  • Did you manage to make a meal with what is in your cupboards? WooHoo!
  • Did you make someone laugh today? Good for you!
  • Did you turn off the news to protect your sanity? Rock on!

Whatever they might be, I encourage you to share your victories, large and tiny, with the people around you, by email with your coworkers, or on social media with #CelebrateAllVictories — or share them in a comment below.

Weathering the stress of uncertainty takes self-kindness.

Self-kindness is one of the most impactful gifts in the midst of crisis and change. Remember to:

  • Be gentle as you judge your reactions.
  • Build a circle of support.

Seek the help you need.

Permit yourself to take the time to implement these tips and lessen the stress caused by uncertainty.


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