How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety (& What to Do About It)
Uncertainty has a way of paralyzing and controlling you, but you don’t have to let it.
I stood at the edge. Staring down at the face of the water 30 feet below. Heart-pounding. My brain thinking a hundred different things at once as a couple of dozen other adventurers who decided to veer off the beaten path in Kauai’s forest looked on.
What if I drown? What if I hit the water the wrong way and it knocks me out somehow? Or what if I belly-flop and everyone laughs? What if this could be the most exhilarating experience of my life? But what if this changes everything I understand about my fears?
Only six inches from my heels to the lip of the cliff divided total uncertainty and what surely would happen if I took the next step.
And I had a choice. I could turn around and avoid the situation altogether. I could stand there, staring, paralyzed. Or, I could take a step and move forward, perhaps in more ways than one.
We all experience uncertainty in life. And this has never been truer than in the last three months:
COVID-19: Are things getting better or worse?
What’s to come with this new election year?
Will there ever be a solution to racism?
Will we ever experience life as we knew it, once (or if) the pandemic ends?
Are protests leading to peace or more violence?
How do we protect our kids?
Why are we getting hit with disasters like the Australian wildfires and murder hornets and tornadoes that kill and destroy?
Will any of these things put me or my family in real danger?
We continue to be inundated with a life that grows more and more uncertain by the day. And that festering uncertainty is like pouring gasoline on an already-burning woodpile of anxiety.
What exactly is the relation of uncertainty to our feelings of anxiety?
Dr. Michael Stein, founder and owner of the private therapy practice Anxiety Solutions, says that facing uncertainty isn’t like confronting tangible fears such as snakes, dogs, or heights. These are the kinds of anxiety-inducers that you can avoid by walking (or running!) away.
Uncertainty is much more elusive. You can’t literally run away from uncertainty. So, your brain pulls a fast one on you by telling you the way to deal with uncertainty is to overanalyze it. It makes sense; if you can logic out the uncertainty until it’s no longer uncertain, then problem solved!
This is why it’s so easy to run stressful scenarios over and over in your head—what we call “ruminating.” You repetitively work scenarios through your head to come up with the most likely outcome. Because, if the sky falls, at least you’ll know it’s coming.
The only problem with this is, it doesn’t work. Uncertainty is, well, uncertain. No matter how much we try to rationalize or reason, we just don’t know what the outcome is going to be. And so you just go through this process of uncertainty, overanalyzing, uncertainty, overanalyzing… which opens the door wide for anxiety to come barging through.
But if uncertainty is so uncertain, what’s there to do other than worry?
When you have no crystal ball to see into an uncertain future, it’s easy to overvalue worry, fear, and anxiety. You feel like that’s the only thing you can do to survive. But this does us much more harm than good.
Not only does the anxiety fueled by uncertainty have a negative impact on our sense of well-being and emotional adjustment, but it also wreaks havoc on our relationships. Once we get caught up in overstressing about something uncertain, it’s easy to slip into becoming anxious about anything uncertain. And this drives a wedge between the connection and intimacy we feel with our family members and those close to us.
So what is there to do other than have anxiety?
Dr. Stein says one thing you must do is change your thinking about uncertainty altogether—
If you tolerate uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate it, your brain eventually learns all of the following:
- Uncertainty is not dangerous. It’s tolerable.
- There is no point to worry; it doesn’t stop bad things from happening.
- What worry does is cause you suffering right now, but it does not save you from suffering later on.
- Uncertainty does not require your attention.
Training your brain to hold on to these truths is akin to, as Stein says, operating a spotlight. You change the focus of the spotlight from the uncertainty and worry to whatever you are doing in the present moment.
All this boils down to a healthy understanding of what you can control and what you cannot control, and resolutely accepting that.
A helpful exercise I have found with uncertain situations is to make two columns on a sheet of paper titled Things I Cannot Control and Things I Can Control. Then write as many thoughts under each column as you can.
For example, if you are facing the uncertainty of a possible job loss due to cutbacks from COVID-19, you may write under Things I Cannot Control:
- If the company downsizes.
- When final decisions are made.
- How the company determines who they’ll let go.
And then, under Things I Can Control:
- How I prepare to seek employment somewhere else, like updating my resumé or reaching out to business contacts.
- The level of job performance I continue to display, in case that is a determining factor for the company.
- Where I focus the spotlight (whether on the worry or on the present moment), especially when I am around my family.
- How I take care of myself, physically and emotionally, so that I have the healthiest approach to uncertainty.
Uncertainty happens, all the time. We are all at the brink of the ledge, looking down into an unclear pool of water. Remember: this water isn’t something to worry and stress over and fear; it’s tolerable. You might not be in control of how cold it is or how high the ledge is. But you don’t have to let the uncertainty of what you can’t control paralyze you, and anxiety doesn’t have to be something that controls you. You are in control of the first step.
For other great reads on how to handle anxiety, take a look at these:
5 Ways to Handle Anxiety About Loved Ones Getting COVID-19
How I Overcome My Anxiety About COVID-19
How To Help Your Spouse Deal With Anxiety
Are You Setting a Good Example of Self-Care for Your Family?
How to Stay Positive When Everything Seems to Be Falling Apart
We were about a month into our COVID-19 quarantine when it finally happened. There had been some ups and downs, of course, but I was feeling pretty good and able to stay positive as an individual, husband, and father. My family was handling it all surprisingly well. I was getting tons of work done. I felt like I was leading the family well. Then I finally snapped.
During the month or so of quarantine, I had been straining, working from home, fearful about my wife working in the medical field, stressed about a son doing middle school online, anxious about a son doing college online, sad for two adult children out of work, worried about one adult child still working in “essential services,” and totally uneasy about my at-risk mother-in-law. ALL of this under ONE roof. (You catch all the emotions in there? I didn’t.) But we were actually navigating it fairly well and trying to stay positive – movie nights, game nights, lots of good conversations. We got this!
Then it all started to unravel. Then I unraveled. Big time.
In the span of a few days:
- My wife was filing for unemployment.
- We had a brush with a tornado that left us with a yard full of fallen trees.
- We had no power to our house for days.
- My car broke down while I was getting ice to keep food from spoiling. (It all spoiled anyway.)
- We had friends who completely lost their homes and we were heartbroken.
- We had all-new financial pressures.
Things were starting to pile up. Stress and worry were at all new levels.
I ignored it – too much to get done!
After about four days of trying to adjust to Generator Life and a bunch of new problems and expenses, I was soon trying to stay positive and hold my world together with threads and patches.
Then, in a single moment, life came undone. (Of course, it did.) The reality is, I came undone. Ironically, it was actually a relatively small thing that did it. Something so small that it would have been no big deal in any other context. Straw. Camel. Back. You know the saying.
I’ll admit it – I was lying in bed crying with the door locked, feeling fragile and helpless.
How did it get to this? I’m stronger than this! What if anyone in my family sees me like this?
If we can allow ourselves to be honest, vulnerable, transparent humans for just a second, you might be feeling it, too. You might be close to snapping. Maybe you are on the edge of being overwhelmed. You may have already broken down. Your story and circumstances might have some major things going on in them that make my little pity party look pitiful.
What do you do to stay positive when it all seems to fall apart?
Here’s what I learned after I snapped back from my snap:
- Acknowledge your emotions and share them with people that you trust. For a while, I had been suppressing or burying emotions and needs deep down, trying to play it cool, but making myself a ticking time bomb.
- Be real with your kids, your spouse, and your friends, because they have their “moments” too. Kids don’t need their parents to be perfect; they need them to be real. It’s good for them to see you work through imperfection and real-world problems.
- Guard your mindset! Be careful what you look for in life, because you’ll find it. If you look for everything that is wrong, you’ll find it and focus on it. If you look for what is going right, that’s there, too. Find it and focus on it. You can acknowledge what’s wrong and still practice gratitude for what’s right. Remember what is really important – people.
- Practice self-care. I was afraid to be honest with myself and the people around me – people that I know would help me, let me blow off steam, and help me process my emotions. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s more than okay to take care of yourself! Practice self-care. You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you can take care of yourself—physically and emotionally.
- Breathe. Think. Act. Take a moment to take some deep breaths, think about what you can and can’t control, and then respond appropriately – don’t react. Don’t make important decisions when you aren’t your best self or you’ve gone to pieces.
- Focus on helping others. This may sound counter-intuitive, but nothing feels better than helping someone with their problems. It actually makes our brain release happy chemicals and it may take your mind off your problems or even put them in perspective.
It’s okay to have a “moment”; it’s not okay to stay there. We’ve all been at a place where we felt like it was just one bad thing after the other and we’ve felt overcome by stress, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Give yourself permission to be real, but also develop a plan to stay positive the next time you feel overwhelmed and about to break down.
Right now, there is a lot of stress, anxiety, and fear going around, and chances are, you’ve experienced it yourself. Whether you’re a parent trying to figure out a new routine with and for your kids, a professional working through the balancing act, a student running into the obstacles of social and academic pressures or all of the above, every person is facing their own challenges in their own way.
There are so many suggestions out there to try and help combat all of the overwhelming emotions: getting enough sleep, setting up a schedule for yourself and your family, eating healthy meals, staying active, talking with friends… The list goes on. But did you know that journaling is another great way to reduce stress and anxiety? And the research is here to back it up!
How Journaling Affects Our Minds
- According to The University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, cope with depression, and improve your mood by helping you prioritize problems and track your symptoms so you can learn your triggers and control them.
- Journaling can also enhance your sense of well-being, improve your working memory, and boost your mood.
- Keeping a journal can help you keep an organized mind and can be helpful when processing information or making sense of trauma.
Okay, so now what? Sure, journaling is great, but it can be hard to get started. The key to making journaling a part of your routine is getting started! So grab an old notebook you’ve got lying around, and choose one, two, or more of the questions below to answer each day. If every day feels like too big of a commitment, start with just three times a week!
- What are 5 good things that happened today?
- What’s one thing you can do differently tomorrow to help it be a better day than today?
- What’s one adjustment you can make to your routine to help set up the day for success?
- What’s the main source of your stress or anxiety? Can you do anything about it?
- What are 10 things that make you happy right now?
- What are 3 things you can do daily to be a positive influence for others?
- How did/will you exercise your mind, body, and spirit today?
- What’s one thing that happened today that you’re still trying to process/understand?
- Did you feel anxious or worried today? When did it start? What caused the feeling?
- Who are two people in your life that mean a lot to you and why?
- What’s one thing that would have to change for you to feel completely satisfied?
- Is there anything that is consistently disturbing your inner peace?
- What do you not like to talk about? Why not?
- What is one thing you learned today?
- If you were completely free of fear, what would you be doing differently today?
- What’s one thing that you’re proud of yourself for?
- What decisions could you make today/tomorrow that could improve your mental, emotional, and/or physical health?
- What’s one habit that you would like to correct? What are some steps you can take toward correcting that habit?
- What are you most ashamed of right now? Why?
- What are 3 things that you did really well today?
Journaling is a great way to understand your thoughts, gain self-awareness, and process the world around you. And now is a great time to start!
Are You Setting a Good Example of Self-Care for Your Family?
I fish. It’s what I do. Some have asked me what in the world draws me to stand by a pond and throw a little feathered hook in the water time and time again, often with very few results. I fish so I can de-stress.
It’s mindless (somewhat) and I can leave all the emotion, anxiety, and uncertainties behind me for just a little while. If you fish, you understand this. I can clear my head before re-entering the real world. Fishing is my self-care.
Self-Care… It’s become a popular term that’s popped up in conversations around health, mindfulness, and stress. You do self-care when you do any kind of action deliberately in order to care for your mental, physical, or emotional health. And it’s widely thought to be effective in reducing anxiety and stress.
How apropos in our current state. At perhaps no other time in recent memory has it been so important to stay healthy. Stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. People are stuck at home. Routines are turned upside down. Family members are spending way more time with each other than they are used to.
I’d say self-care is a precious commodity right about now.
I don’t know about you, but in my house, it’s easy to give our kids a schedule that includes some healthy activities. However, it’s extremely difficult for me personally to get into a routine of self-care activities. My game is so thrown off by the stress of our circumstances. And it’s sometimes a fight just to get me away from the computer screen.
But it has to happen. As parents, we’ve got to be a good example and practice self-care right now. And here’s why:
You can’t give what you don’t have.
Meaning, if you want your kids to practice self-care, you need to self-care. You’ve got to fill your tank so you have it in you to help them fill their tanks. When you self-care, you’re better able to handle feelings of anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and stress. This is important so these emotions don’t get the best of you.
Pay attention to yourself. Keep an eye on the radar of your emotional state. Take the time to do some things each day that help you deal with all the chaos that is going on.
- Go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Let the sun shine on your face for a little while.
- Meditate or pray. Sing (out loud).
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Do push-ups. Or go for a run. Or practice yoga. Anything to stretch, strengthen, and move the body.
- Eat clean. Healthier food keeps your energy up. Drink plenty of water.
- But, every few days, sneak in that Oreo. Because… stress.
- Read a book. Watch a documentary. Keep your mental game strong.
- Communicate your needs to the people that love you. Let them know when you need to be alone. And let them know when you need to be with them. Get plenty of both.
These are just a small number of suggestions for self-care. Search online for other ideas and find out what feeds your health—body and soul. And then do it. Regularly.
Of course, we don’t self-care simply for our own needs. Our families are depending on us. That’s why it’s so important that we set a good example of self-care as parents.
Your moments of self-care are the teachable moments for your kids.
As parents, every little thing we do is seen. Young eyes are watching how we handle ourselves—especially in the midst of anxiety and stress. They take their emotional cues from what they see in us. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a terrible parenting style—particularly when it comes to self-care. They need to see you handling your health in a positive way.
It’s okay for your kids to know you are anxious or fearful. But it’s so much more important that they see how you handle your anxiety and fear. When they see you taking care of yourself, you are modeling that for your children. It may sound funny, but your example of self-care leaves a legacy.
Parents, take care of yourself. For your sake, and for your kids. They’re counting on you.
How do you typically deal with the unexpected things life hands you? How you handle these situations – whether it’s a sick family member, a traffic jam on the morning of your big meeting or a last-minute, expensive repair – can determine whether the problem is minor or becomes huge and affects the rest of your day, week, month and beyond.
When unexpected things collide with the best-laid plans, some people have a tendency to react to the emotions of the moment. Their anxiety goes through the roof, they begin to panic, thinking about being late and all of the things they are supposed to get done. This often leads to frustration and feelings of helplessness and in some cases, even feeling hopeless.
How can you effectively prepare for these situations in a way that will help you remain calm, cool and collected? The key is to learn how to respond versus react, so the first item on the agenda is to have a plan and utilize the resources available to you.
The first key: Have a backup plan just in case something goes wrong.
This is like having an emergency generator so your life can keep going regardless of the crisis at hand. Be intentional about creating a support network of people who are willing to assist you when you are in a bind. It doesn’t have to be family. It could be teachers, neighbors, the parents of your child’s friends, co-workers, etc.
The second key: Step back and assess the situation before doing anything.
People often move to action before actually assessing the situation to determine all their options. This includes getting the facts. We are much less likely to do something ridiculous when we think before we respond.
Once you have your plans in place, remember to follow your plan when the unexpected happens. Having steps to follow helps to make these situations more manageable.
- Keep your emotions in check. Don’t let the situation control you.
- Be prepared. Keep basic medication on hand, have a spare set of keys for your car, take a lesson on how to change a flat tire, give your neighbor keys to your house, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. It is hard to be helpful when people don’t know there is a need.
- Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes talking with an objective third party can be helpful.
All kinds of things will pop up in your life that have the potential to wreck your schedule, cause irritation or create stress, but how you handle it can be a game-changer. The next time you are dealt an unexpected surprise, be ready to respond by staying calm, assessing the situation and working your plan. You will probably be amazed at how quickly you can manage the crisis and get on with your day.
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