Posts

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:

  • I cannot control if the company downsizes. 
  • I cannot control when final decisions are made. 
  • I cannot control how the company determines who they’ll let go.

And then, under Things I Can Control:

  • I can control how I prepare to seek employment somewhere else, like updating my resumé or reaching out to business contacts. 
  • I can control the level of job performance I continue to display, in case that is a determining factor for the company. 
  • I can control where I focus the spotlight (whether on the worry or on the present moment), especially when I am around my family. 
  • I can control 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?

Image from Unsplash.com

COVID-19 has most likely contributed to the longest ongoing uncertainty people have dealt with in, well, maybe ever.

Should I send my children to school?

Will I have a job tomorrow?

Is the economy going to make it?

Are we going to lose our home?

If I get COVID-19, will I survive?

Will things ever be normal again?

These are just a few of the questions we are wrestling with as we try to create some sense of normalcy for ourselves and those around us.

The hard truth that most of us don’t tend to think about is that even when we are living our best lives, there’s actually a great deal of uncertainty. Anything could happen in the next moment that could throw our lives into complete chaos. The difference is, it’s not as in your face as COVID-19.

So, short of throwing in the towel, how do you deal with the ongoing uncertainty?

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes being separated from his wife in the concentration camps. Everything he owned was taken from him, including the manuscript for his book. As he shared what it was like living one day to the next with no idea whether his wife was still alive or whether that day would be his last day, he says he realized that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

Frankl says, “In order to live a meaningful life, we have to identify what is meaningful to us in every moment. There is a kind of mindfulness to meaning—a level of focused attention where we must focus on identifying what we find meaningful.” 

Straight out of the gates, it seems like this is a moment where we all have the opportunity to deal with uncertainty, starting with two things. We can decide what is most meaningful to us AND choose the attitude with which we will engage the days ahead. Making decisions about both of these things will anchor us in our journey and give us a mindset for everything else we need to do.

Other strategies for dealing with uncertainty include:

  • Making plans, but holding them loosely. Everybody would like to be able to make a decision about school and be done with it. In this particular moment though, that is probably not how things will roll. So, making a plan, but including a couple of alternatives can help decrease the out of control feelings uncertainty often brings. 
  • Doing what you will wish you had done. Sounds a bit crazy, but these are difficult times. Often when we look back on a time when we struggled, we will say, “I wish I had just gone with my gut and…” It is easy to second guess yourself, but seriously, looking back 10 years from now, what will you wish you had done?
  • Paying attention to your mental health and the mental health of those around you. Back to the attitude thing. Our brains have a natural tendency to go negative, especially when the going gets tough. You or the ones you love may really be struggling at the moment. Surround yourself with supportive people. Seek help if you just can’t seem to shake feeling down and depressed all the time.
  • Giving yourself permission to feel what you feel. Write down your emotions: frustrated, tired, irritable, abandoned, isolated, anxious, lonely, bored, confused, inadequate, jealous. None of these are bad in and of themselves. How you choose to respond to these feelings can either help you move forward or make your life more complicated. 
  • Making a list of all the things you actually have control over. Even if you did this early on, do it again. It’s a good and helpful brain exercise. Remember, your brain believes what you tell it. If you are constantly talking about everything being out of control, your brain believes you and acts accordingly. Feeling out of control creates fear, and our body responds to fear by creating adrenaline and cortisol. Research shows that the long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. It affects your ability to think clearly, make decisions, sleep and  literally function on a daily basis.
  • Considering things you can do to create some consistency in your daily living. Routines, rituals, consistency and structure help us feel more secure, especially in times of extreme uncertainty. Little things like going to bed and getting up at the same time every day or planning your meals can make a major impact on your well-being.
  • Enlisting the help of others. Once you have given some thought to your mindset and the attitude with which you want to engage life right now, ask friends, family members and/or co-workers to encourage you in your efforts. Ask them to help you be accountable for how you have decided to embrace the uncertainty, too.
  • Showing yourself some grace. You can do all of the things above and still have some really hard days. Instead of beating yourself up, acknowledge how hard it is. Cry if you need to, journal, go for a run—whatever it takes to help you process through it. The good news is, you know the direction you want to head and you can get back on track putting one foot in front of the other.

When you are lost and using a compass to figure out where you are, the needle may shake a bit, but it always finds north. The road ahead may be shaky and full of twists and turns, but working through some of these strategies for dealing with uncertainty can help you find your north again. That way, you can keep on keeping on.

Image from Unsplash.com

All of us are beginning to realize that life as we have known it has dramatically changed. We are at war against an invisible enemy that is wreaking havoc on our lives. Playdates for our children, lunch with friends, a steady income, worship, exercise classes, school, sports, graduations and even shopping are either non-existent, cancelled, postponed or look very different at this moment in time. Our lives have been interrupted in a huge way.

Even for the most spontaneous person, our dramatically different way of living has many of us on edge. 

“During times of trauma and uncertainty, we are stressed, weary and overwhelmed,” says Dr. Gary Oliver, clinical psychologist. “Our typical response is to ‘react’ in the moment, which often makes things worse. This is our emotional brain hijacking our thinking.”

Especially during these times, Oliver says we need to be intentional about “responding” instead of “reacting.” 

 “In life there are only three kinds of situations: things I can control, things I can’t control but can influence, which is a larger group, but the degree of influence probably isn’t as great as we think, and things that are totally out of our control,” Oliver says. “We can’t control the COVID-19 outbreak. But we can be sure to wash our hands and distance ourselves from others. If you are a person of faith, you can pray. We can exercise to stay healthy, we can be kind and help others who are more susceptible to catching the virus.”

Oliver believes this focus on what we can control and influence will help us thrive as we work to reach the other side of this crisis. For each decision that you face during this time, Oliver recommends that you think of the situation as a blinking yellow caution light. We all need to slow down and proceed with caution. Why? Because we are at risk of acting in ways that will only complicate the situation or possibly make things worse.

Here are some specific actions Oliver recommends to help us deal with the days ahead:

Sit down and make a list of all the things you can totally “control.” In all likelihood, this is a very short list. 

Then make a list of the things you believe you can influence. 

Finally, list the things you can do nothing about – and this is probably an endless list. Oliver says most of the time people are kind of shocked by how few things they can actually control. Some studies suggest that approximately two-thirds of what we worry about are things totally beyond our control.

Now, rank the list of things you can actually influence from one to 10, with 10 being the highest. The things at the bottom of the list are the things you actually have the least influence over. Then look at the things you scored five and above. Ask yourself, “What are some specific things I can do in these areas?” Your answers may be something like this: I can stay aware of the latest updates or I can practice good self-care. 

Speaking of practicing good self-care, Oliver points out that we are only as good for our spouse, children, extended family and friends as we are for ourselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can really be unhelpful to others. You can love yourself and others by eating well, resting, utilizing spiritual resources if you are a person of faith and getting exercise. 

Count your blessings. In challenging times, it is easy to focus on the negative instead of what you actually have. Make a list of your blessings. Do you have food? Is there a roof over your head? Can you walk, talk, see and hear? Do you have people who love you and are checking in on you? Do you have electricity, running water and access to the internet? Visually seeing your list is empowering. 

Support others. Ask yourself, “How can I encourage, express appreciation, support or pray for others?”

Find ways to connect face to face through Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime or something else. Although we have social distancing, we still need relationships. Texting and Facebook are ok, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Seeing someone’s face and hearing their voice is comforting and psychologically, physiologically and emotionally nurturing. We all need that, especially at this moment in time. Isolation is good for not spreading the virus, but relationship isolation is not healthy.

Pay attention to your pets. Brain science now tells us that interactions with our pets can be life-giving, especially in times of crisis. 

When people feel like they can’t do anything, anxiety, fear, discouragement and depression creep in. People become overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. 

These suggestions may seem small in the scheme of things, but they are not insignificant. Instead, these recommendations can help you grow smarter and make wiser decisions. Look for the opportunity to encourage others, because it’s not just about your own survival.

Ask yourself, “What is going to be my next healthy step?”

When you’re in the checkout line at the store and a 2-year-old has a meltdown because they can’t have a candy bar, nobody is shocked because well, they are two. It’s totally another story when an adult who is unable to regulate their emotions has a public meltdown.

Unfortunately, a rising number of teens and adults seem to be struggling with emotional and impulse control, and the results are often disastrous. Think road rage, someone cutting in line or even publicly expressing a different opinion in a rude manner.

The Child Mind Institute defines self-regulation as the ability to manage emotions and behavior in accordance with situational demands. It is a skill set that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior toward a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and their own feelings. It includes:

  • Being able to resist highly-emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli,
  • Calming yourself down when you get upset,
  • Adjusting to a change in expectations, and
  • Handling frustration without an outburst.

Children who don’t learn this skill struggle to self-regulate as they get older. And, if you’ve ever experienced this out-of-control feeling or been on the receiving end, you know it’s not a good thing. There is good news, though. If you didn’t learn this skill as a child, it is still possible to learn it as an adult.

Your emotional brain processes information in two milliseconds, so keeping yourself under control during a frustrating experience involves being able to pause between the feeling and your response. There is a trigger; someone pushes your buttons (we all have an easy button), there is an instant reaction, accompanied by a strong emotion often followed by a feeling of remorse. This is the body’s automatic built-in protection system, also known as “fight, flight or freeze.”

Your rational brain, which helps you make sound decisions, processes information in 500 milliseconds, 250 times longer than your emotional brain. People have to learn how to assess situations quickly, but if they don’t pause long enough to discern what is actually happening, their emotional brain can take control before their rational brain has a chance to kick into gear. 

If you or someone you know struggles with self-regulation, it’s not too late! You just have to be intentional about choosing to behave differently.

Think about what you can control and what you cannot. You cannot control how other people behave, but you can choose how you will respond or engage with them. Sometimes, the best response is to do nothing.

Learn how to master your feelings, versus letting them master you will serve you well. For example, when someone cuts you off when you’re driving, you suddenly feel your heart rate go up, adrenaline starts flowing, and your first instinct is to go after them. However, if you are practicing emotional regulation, you can take a breath, even acknowledge that that makes you angry, but then let it go because the consequences of your actions could bring harm to you, that driver and others who aren’t even involved.

This should not be interpreted as people not being able to stand up for themselves or being silenced. Instead, learning how to master strong and powerful emotions can help people develop calm and constructive ways to have their voice heard. When people are out of control, it’s highly unlikely that anything positive will come from the situation.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Jessica was a junior in college when she started dating Jason. She had her eye on him for a while, thinking he was cute. When he finally asked her out, she was very excited.

Within a month of their first date, Jessica’s girlfriends complained that she never spent time with them anymore. Her whole world seemed to revolve around Jason. Initially Jessica made excuses, but she finally told them that Jason got jealous and angry when she spent time with them.

Rather than make him angry, she was willing to give up her time with friends for the sake of the relationship. She loved him.

Jessica’s friends thought Jason was controlling, possessive and had an anger problem. On more than one occasion after one of Jason’s outbursts, friends warned her that the relationship was not healthy and that she needed to end it. She ignored them.

When she finally broke up with Jason six months later, her friends had moved on and she found herself alone, heartbroken and face to face with the reality that her friends had been right all along.

Why hadn’t she listened to her friends?

This common scenario plays out on many high school and college campuses, more so for girls than guys.

Key findings from a College Dating and Abuse poll conducted in 2011 by Fifth and Pacific Companies (formerly Liz Claiborne) indicated that a significant number of college women are victims of violence and abuse.

  • 52 percent of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

  • 43 percent of dating college women report experiencing some violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.

A 2009 study by the same company among dating high school students found that American teens are experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse. Furthermore, the economy appears to have made it worse.

Findings also showed that parents are disturbingly out of touch with the level of teen dating violence and abuse among teens. The large majority of abused teens are not informing parents, and even when they do, most stay in abusive relationships.

People need to know the red flags of an unhealthy relationship and they need to know how to get out.

The warning signs include:

  • Checking the other person’s cell phone or email without permission.
  • Constant put-downs.
  • Extreme jealousy, insecurity or anger.
  • Isolation from family or friends.
  • Making false accusations.
  • Physical violence.
  • Possessiveness.
  • Controlling behavior.

Breaking it off can be complicated, but putting a plan together will help. Asking for help from a trusted person is a sign of strength.

To make a clean break, move on to a different group of friends; otherwise it might be tempting to fall back into the unhealthiness. Remember, this is a dating relationship, not a marriage. If it isn’t good while you are dating, it won’t get better over time.

There’s nothing wrong with having great expectations for a relationship. However, if you have to change and sacrifice your friends to make it work, it’s time to move on.