Tolerating Uncertainty in Uncertain Times: Values, Anxiety, And Willingness In The Era Of The Coronavirus

In this pandemic, many people’s lives have been disrupted in ways they never imagined. People are struggling with losses, lack of structure, difficulty with motivation, changes in schedule, computer fatigue, lack of ability to control things, feeling restricted and limited in what they can do, and being told what to do by governmental authorities. Anxiety prevails when times are uncertain, time frames are not set, and no one knows what it will mean for “things to go back to normal.” People usually cope better when they have a clear answer as to when the stress and restrictions will end; as they can predict and control how long they will have to tolerate what may not feel tolerable. The not knowing is the challenge.

Sitting with uncertainty is often a major part of adaptive coping. Often when people feel out of control they behave in ways that produce an illusion of having more control, including trying to be more controlling themselves. Anxiety behavior tends to be restricting, rigid, and inflexible. Some pick fights with people they love. Some try to micro-manage the people around them. Some yell, lash out, or escalate. Some people withdraw, sleep, or restrict their interactions with others. Some stop reaching out to friends or people they love. Some avoid getting things done or move forward. Some drink alcohol or use marijuana in excess. Others cope by antagonism or rebellion, externalizing blame to authority figures who can’t make this end, either.

In an era of a pandemic, there is no immediate quick fix. No one knows what will happen, who will contract the virus, and who will be taken by the virus. No one can cheat death. Here are some things to keep in mind in the era of uncertainty:

-Anxiety behaviors are not a way to obtain certainty. People often have their own “personal fix” of what they do when they are stressed. Some of this has some sense of normalcy and is not harmful, such as sleeping a bit more or eating more chocolate. However, some anxiety behaviors have hurtful outcomes. What is your anxiety behavior when stressed, and does it actually control the outcome of when the pandemic will “end”?

-Be willing to accept the discomfort of uncertainty. In the face of uncertainty, people have found ways to cope well. Find the ways in which people are coping well and see what you can do to manage stress and anxiety without making it worse. Reach out and ask what other people are doing with boredom, fatigue, work-life changes, and other related stressors. Find the news, heroes, and people who have survived great life challenges well. Once you accept what you can not control, your anxiety may not disappear but it will go down. Trying to control what you can not control makes it worse.

-Keep in mind your values. What is important to and who is important to you and why? What does this tell you about your spiritual values, who/ what to trust, and who you rely on when you are having a hard time? A willingness to yield control often means finding more trust in community. People are rediscovering lost values as limits are being placed on them, and finding new ways and means of connecting to family and loved ones. Keep asking and looking people for the silver lining, the unseen benefit, or the ways that people are enhancing their sense of connection.

-Do your part. If you have something to offer at this time, consider the benefit or value of what you can do for others. Often contributing is a way to distract from our own anxiety and involves universal benefit. Donate to a food drive, reach out to neighbors, do errands for someone who is quarantined, pick up trash in a nearby park or bike path, give blood, make masks, cook or bake for family members, repair something that is broken, join a neighborhood volunteer task force, or start online Zoom socials.

When life hands you lemons and you can’t make lemonade

Has anyone ever told you to simply turn a negative into a positive? Maybe people have told you to get over it, move on, keep your chin up, or let it go. At some point someone may have suggested returning unfavorable actions with kindness, acting happy when you were not, or being pleasant despite unpleasant circumstances.

Is this kind of feedback actually helpful? Here are some thoughts on this manner:

There is some value in being able to shift perspective, look at the bright side, or even create positive emotions by doing things that are enjoyable and pleasant. It can also be quite beneficial to “shift gears” by getting your mind off your problems and distress, see things differently, or look at the bigger picture.

Sometimes, however, when the focus of our attention is always on the “positive”, it can prevent or inhibit us from fully experiencing emotion, approaching or addressing conflict in an adaptive manner, and having those “difficult conversations” in which disagreement means risking sharing what we really think and feel. Sometimes focusing on the “positive” can create environments in which there is very low tolerance for negative emotion, pain or sadness is never acknowledged, and people remain isolated in their inability to connect more deeply with each other.

However, the other extreme for this situation can also be that persons are chronically down, depressed, moody, irritable, or aggravated. Sometimes emphasizing or holding onto these experiences are a testament that pain exists, that pain is real, and that the world should acknowledge it more. Sometimes people get “stuck” in these places, however- and have considerable difficulty shifting out of it.

A full, rich, and meaningful often involves the ability to connect to others in a meaningful way, to express vulnerability and not be alone in our pain, to take emotional risks in sharing what matters, and to (also) show up for the pleasant, mundane, simple, and joyful experiences that life has to offer. This means neither getting “stuck” in painful emotions nor living a life of hiding, masking, “sucking it up”, or denying what is painful. In reality, emotions come and emotions go. Sometimes they are intense and sometimes they are extreme. The key is to allow them to be there when they come and allow them to leave when they are ready to go. When we can both acknowledge our own pain and participate in the happiness of what life offers (taking into account the truth of both perspectives), we will have better ways of managing the lemons of life.