Louise Chunn looks at how we can learn to cope better with uncertain times and let go of control to feel better
A psychologist friend is the head of the counselling services at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Over the years we’ve often spoken about how, when you’re young (as most students are), you desperately want to know what is going to happen next.
He’s often faced with young people begging him to tell them that he knows how to deal with uncertainty. But he doesn’t. In fact his standard response is, with a big, empathetic smile on his face, to say “Life is full of surprises, and most of them are bloody awful!”
Coping with uncertain times
These past few years have been the very definition of his warning. It can feel as if the world as we know it is slowly being eroded. Our working lives, our social lives, our educational systems and our financial stability have all been affected by a global pandemic, war, climate change and a cost of living crisis. But, as my friend would say, that’s life. These things happen. It’s what we do with them that counts.
Letting go of control
Our fear of uncertainty in normal times is really our fear of losing control. As Gita Aussia, a therapist on therapist matching platform welldoing.org, says: “When we feel like we are not able to control the outcome of future events, we anticipate disaster. This can be very anxiety-provoking, especially for those who find any uncertainty intolerable.
You might start to worry excessively and try to take control of the situation by doing anything you can to get away or avoid the unknown.” In fact, this usually leads to even more anxiety and exhaustion.
When we are feeling anxious, it can be very difficult to quell our fears. Some people become hyper-vigilant to protect themselves, and are less and less trusting of anyone from outside their small circle. You may have seen this in your own social sphere this year: some people will be terrified of infection, some cavalier.
For the former, worrying can cause physical and mental problems, ranging from exhaustion to sleeplessness, from inability to concentrate to a heavier than usual reliance on alcohol or drugs that might help to ease the anxious feelings (though not usually for long, and generally bringing their own problems with them).
The new normal
So, how are we to cope with a new normal, to live with the unknown so large and looming in our future? First off, it’s a good idea to understand how affected you have been already.
Are you sleeping well enough to wake feeling relatively refreshed? If this isn’t the case, then taking steps to improve your sleep quality is a good, achievable goal. Avoid stimulants from late afternoon onwards, stick to a routine at bedtime, keep your room dark and not too warm.
Are you able to achieve things you set out to do? Some people find the uncertainty so overpowering that concentration on other things is all but impossible. In the case of the pandemic, it might be best to seriously limit the media you are subjecting yourself to. Ask yourself: do you need to know the minutiae of this or will it make you feel worse?
Do you find yourself worrying about everything, not just your current situation? If anxiety has been a problem for you previously this could be a very difficult time for you.
Personally, during the start of the pandemic, I found myself waking earlier and earlier, pouring over media reports and graphs, trying frantically to analyse and compare myriad pieces of information and opinion. I drank more alcohol and snacked more than usual; I tried to ‘turn off’ by watching hour after hour of overwrought shows on Netflix. Surprise, surprise: the uncertainty of the situation loomed only larger.
So what can we do instead as we deal with the next set of uncertain times?
Life is ever changing
First off, acknowledge that throughout time, and even in our own life, we have always lived with uncertainty. That’s human history. Writing about a previous terrorist attack, another welldoing.org therapist Sue Cowan-Jensen reminded us: “We live with the risk because we tell ourselves the chances are it will be OK. And it usually is. To live without risk is not to live at all.
No one can promise that nothing bad will happen but we do know that living as if it is going to happen is no way to live. We need to make sensible assessments and take sensible precautions. But above all, we have to remember and tell ourselves that just because we are anxious about something does not mean it will happen.”
You might be surprised to know that Sian Williams, the Channel 5 newsreader who read the news from her Surrey room throughout lockdowns, has completed a psychology doctorate, and is already working as a counsellor with the NHS. She has experienced all the awfulness of the pandemic period – many members of her family work in the health service – but she also sees an upside from all of this.
Sian has studied trauma and is eager for us all to understand that there can be benefits from these difficult times. “There is the potential to recognise the resilience that we gain from this, and instead of bouncing back, actually springing forward to create something new and better.”
Whatever happens, one thing is sure – the future is always filled with potential, if we reach out and grab it.
3 ways to let go
- Take some time out from your phone. People will get back in touch with you if it’s urgent. Even if it’s just leaving it at home when you go for a walk for wellbeing, you’ll feel the relief.
- Acknowledge that while planning can be useful, it’s not always the way to take the pressure off you. Limit scheduling to where it’s absolutely necessary.
- Treat yourself as you might a friend who is unwell. Don’t self criticise, don’t aim for perfection. In difficult times, we must be gentle with ourselves.