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.
“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.”
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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.
To stop the spiral, Sweeny recommends learning how to focus on the present by using an age-old technique: mindfulness. “It entails an intense focus on the present moment, so it’s a good fit to ameliorate the time travel problem.” Sweeny and her colleague Jennifer L. Howell put mindfulness to the test in a study involving law school graduates awaiting bar exam results. “We found that people who are naturally mindful, and also people who did brief mindfulness meditation every week or so, seemed to fare better during a stressful waiting period.”
You don’t need any expensive equipment or devices to start practicing mindfulness. “Being mindful is challenging, but practicing mindfulness is easy,” Sweeny advises. “There are tons of apps and YouTube videos with guided meditations, targeting all kinds of struggles. There are also other ways to practice mindfulness. For example, you can eat in a mindful way, focusing on every movement, taste, smell, and sound.”
Binge-Watch Your Favorite Childhood Show
While you don’t want to waste time worrying about the past, taking a little trip down memory lane can do wonders for your mental health during periods of uncertainty.
“At the start of the pandemic, people went back to eating a lot of the food they’d had as a child,” Freeston says. In March, as cities across the US went into lockdown, sales of comfort foods like pizza and hotdogs exploded. “It’s not comfort food because it’s high in calories, fat, and sugar. It’s comfort food because it’s familiar. People are looking for those signs of safety that help us cope with uncertainty.”
It doesn’t have to be food. Anything nostalgic that reminds you of a time when you felt secure can help offset the anxiety that comes with so much unknown. “It’s the unknowingness that people are really struggling with, so we need to find comfort in things we recognize,” Freeston advises. If you’re worried about your waistline, try binge-watching your favorite show from when you were a kid. “There’s a reason so many adults are going back to watching Disney movies,” Freeston says. “The show you saw last year would probably be just as entertaining to rewatch, but it wouldn’t give you those same familiar signs of safety.”
Ditch the Book, Play a Video Game
If it was hard getting your hands on Clorox wipes or yeast back in March, it was all but impossible to buy a Nintendo Switch. Sales of the handheld console doubled year over year as people sought to tune out reality and lose themselves in the virtual worlds of Zelda, Animal Crossing, or Mario. And it worked.
“What these people are doing is called finding their flow—essentially a state of complete absorption in an enjoyable activity, when time seems to fly by and you even lose self-awareness,” explains Sweeny. A new paper she worked on with eight other researchers confirmed that for people in lockdown in China during the peak of Covid-19 there, this type of engrossing activity helped preserve their mental health. “It’s a really effective antidote to distress during various waiting periods,” Sweeny says.
If video games aren’t your thing, plenty of other activities will do, from gardening to painting. The trick is to find something that’s not so easy you’ll get bored and not so mentally taxing that you’ll struggle to concentrate—which is probably why so many avid readers haven’t been able to stay focused on their books. “The best kind of activities to achieve a flow state are ones that are enjoyable, that challenge you just the right amount (neither boring nor frustrating), and that allow you to track your progress,” Sweeny says. “Video games are perfect for this purpose, but almost any activity can become a flow activity with a bit of attention to those three components.”
Find a New Rhythm
So many people have lost so much during the pandemic—jobs, houses, loved ones—that it feels frivolous to be missing smaller things, like the bagel you used to buy every morning on your way to the office, or the bar you went to for happy hour on Fridays. But as trivial as these things might seem, they helped create the sense of stability and predictability we need to function.
“Before the pandemic, I knew I would get up in the morning and have my one cup of coffee for the day. When we went into lockdown, the idea that I might not be able to do that was really upsetting, not because I’m addicted to coffee, but because it was part of my routine,” Freeston says. “It’s these little signs of safety that create a rhythm to our lives and tell us things are going to be alright.”
To help alleviate the anxiety we feel when we lose this rhythm, Freeston recommends building a new one. “You have to make sure you’re creating enough safety signals for yourself. What are the things that, even if we have to go back into lockdown again, you can count on?”
Importantly, it has to be things that you can control, so post-lockdown bucket lists are less useful for these purposes. “Lots of people are projecting into the future, thinking ‘This is what I’m going to do when …’ But some of those things might not happen, or they might happen in a different way from what you envisage,” Freeston points out. “Instead, think about how to build some structure into your daily life that you can rely on, so that you know what will be happening at 7:30 am on a Monday morning whether or not the schools reopen. If everything goes smoothly, you won’t need these safety cues. But if it doesn’t, you’ll feel less unsettled by it all.”
Play Around the Edges
As much as we might like to, we can’t stay cooped up in our apartments eating comfort food and watching Beauty and the Beast forever. “Almost everything we do in life has an element of uncertainty to it,” Jacoby points out. “When we use our stove or drive into work, we’re accepting some level of risk that our home may burn down or that we may be in a car accident. Instead of trying to run away from it, challenge yourself to practice tolerating uncertainty.”
Freeston recommends starting out small. “Once you’ve found those things that help you regain a sense of safety, start building in some elements of flexibility,” he advises. “So you can still watch movies from when you were a kid, but maybe ask your roommate to pick from a selection, so you don’t know which one it will be.” Once you’re comfortable with that level of uncertainty, you can add in more.
But you won’t tolerate even small amounts of ambiguity until you feel safe again, Freeston warns. “We want people to become more tolerant of uncertainty, but you can only do that if you’re feeling safe. So you need to become secure first, and then you can start playing around the edges.” Consider that permission to spend this weekend watching reruns of your favorite show.
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