Uncertainty is Stressful; Here’s How to Cope
As vaccinations increase and Americans tenuously step out of Covid restrictions, uncertainty abounds with regard to what is safe and what is not. Like the rest of the country, Vermonters are trying to navigate “re-entry” with minimal risk to themselves, their families, and communities. How are we to accurately assess the risk of individual situations when there are so many unknowns?
Safety Questions Top Web Searches
Reflecting this uncertainty, the phrase “is it safe…?” has trended on search engines in recent weeks. Five questions topped the trending list on Google last week, all starting with Is it safe to…
- not wear a mask?
- not wear a mask after being vaccinated?
- drink alcohol after getting the Covid vaccine?
- for 12-year-olds to get the Covid vaccine?
- get the Covid vaccine if you are pregnant?
People also have questions around social distancing. Search engine trends show a rise in queries around what the current social distancing guidelines are, when they will end, and how they have affected us.
A Question that Belies Uncertainty
All of this points to a population burdened by uncertainty stress – the stress of not knowing. Unknowns around basic needs like personal safety that pose a threat to our health or that of our loved ones can be particularly anxiety-inducing.
The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Stress in America survey showed the extent of uncertainty stress in a pandemic year. In it, around two-thirds of Americans cited uncertainty about the future as a source of stress as it relates to health-related issues, and nearly a third cited economic uncertainty as a stressor.
How Uncertainty Stress Taxes the Brain
Uncertainty stress is a particularly troublesome variant of stress, because of how it taxes the brain. The brain works by making predictions based on the information it has at the moment. When its predictions are proved inaccurate, it works harder to make better predictions. In an environment marked by ongoing and widespread unpredictability — like the coronavirus pandemic – the brain goes into a state of constant alert. It exerts a lot of effort trying to resolve the uncertainties. This takes a toll on the brain that shows up in myriad ways, including inability to focus, intrusive thoughts, or emotional reactivity.
The effects of uncertainty stress go beyond brain fog. To meet its increased energy demands, the brain robs from the body.
The brain is a greedy organ—it gobbles up 20 percent of the body’s overall metabolic energy and prioritizes its own needs at the expense of other organ systems. If the brain is “always on” to figure out an uncertainty, it is constantly pulling energetic resources from the body. Physically, this can result in fatigue, sleep disruptions, fluctuations in overall energy levels—the kinds of things that are hallmarks of chronic stress.~ Pandemic Brain: Parsing the Mental Health Toll, in Cerebrum, Oct. 15, 2020
How to Manage Uncertainty Stress
The APA’s guidance on managing uncertainty stress includes these coping tips, among others. (Read the full article to get them all.)
- Be kind to yourself. Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties than others, so don’t beat yourself up if your tolerance for unpredictability is lower than a friend’s. Remind yourself that it might take time for the stressful situation to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.
- Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past—and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful and what you might like to do differently this time.
- Develop new skills. When life is relatively calm, make a point to try things outside your comfort zone. From standing up to a difficult boss to trying a new sport, taking risks helps you develop confidence and skills that come in handy when life veers off course.
- Limit exposure to news. When we’re stressed about something, it can be hard to look away. But compulsively checking the news only keeps you wound up. Try to limit your check-ins and avoid the news during vulnerable times of day, such as right before bedtime.
More Resources for Coping with Uncertainty
- Helpguide offers a resource page for Dealing with Uncertainty, which includes practical tips for coping.
- Greater Good Magazine created Seven Ways to Cope with Uncertainty.
- The COVIDSupportVT.org website has a comprehensive list of wellness resources and apps organized by audience and theme, and self-help resources to support your well-being.
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