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Living with Uncertainty – How to Manage in Unstable Times

living with uncertaintyby Andrea Blundell

Between the pandemic and climate change threats, we have all experienced living with uncertainty lately. It can definitely feel destabilising, and rates of  anxiety and depression have been skyrocketing.

How can we better navigate unstable times?

Our brains on uncertainty

A research study had participants play a computer game with rocks that might or might not have snakes under them. If they turned over a rock with a snake, they received a painful electric shock.When participants were given no clues at all and uncertainty was highest, their physiological stress level measurements peaked. Things like a racing heart and sweaty palms were actually lower when the participants had hints when the snakes and shocks were coming. 

The conclusion was that us humans really do not like uncertainty. Our brains even prefer knowing something bad is going to happen to not knowing what will happen.

How to handle living with uncertainty

Which feeds into the first step to navigating uncertainty.

1. Learn the fine art of acceptance.

Sometimes we need to just accept that tough things will happen, as inevitably as good things will.  

If we resign ourselves to challenges instead of trying to avoid them, our brain can actually be less stressed. 

living with uncertainty

photo by Dieter de Vroomen

2. Go all worse case scenario.

The ‘worst case scenario’ is a coaching technique.The idea is that if we let our minds fully face our fears, and write out or talk through the very worst thing we think might happen? We actually lower our anxiety.  

Once we admit the worst possibility, we open our perspective to also see the action steps that could deal with that situation. And once we have an action plan, we can start to feel less overwhelmed. 

3. Find proof that things change. 

When we are anxious and living with uncertainty, our thoughts become distorted. We think in black and white, we make assumptions, add a dash of doom and gloom. We cannot handle this! It’s a lost cause!

But if you are old enough to be here reading this article, you are old enough to have lived through a tough time and made it through the other side intact.living with uncertainty

Make a list of all the hard things you experienced and the good times that came after. Notice the pattern. How life is a cycle, no matter how much it doesn’t feel like it right now. What inner resources did you find in those times? And how might they help you now? 

4 Catch those mad thoughts and hold them up to the light. 

Key thing to remember — thoughts are often far from factual. 

Develop the habit of ‘listening in’ to your ‘head radio’ and noticing what your thoughts are. Then take a tip from cognitive therapy and learn to question each one.

  • Is this thought true, or is it an exaggeration?
  • What proof do I have this thought is true?
  • And what proof do I have the opposite is true, actually?
  • Is there a more balanced perspective in the middle that I could take here?

5. Stop comparing. 

Not just comparing yourself to others who seem to be doing fine despite circumstances. (Which may or may not be true, many of us are simply just very good at putting on a show).

But stop comparing present you to past you. It’s simply not fair and just a guaranteed way to lower your mood.

There is nothing wrong with being less productive when living with uncertainty, or in feeling blue. Depression and anxiety are a normal response to an abnormal world, and your brain IS doing it’s best to process. 

6. Seek meaning despite all odds. 

Challenges provide opportunity to remember the skills we have that can help others, to start new projects, to unite with those we’ve lost touch with. And when we have purpose, our moods lift. 

7. Find healthy outlets and kick to the curb the ones that aren’t.

It’s already a stressful time. So if you have unhealthy habits that admittedly affect your coping levels, it is time to question if you could get rid of them. 

For example, if you know that those two glasses of wine a night leave you to sleep poorly and manage badly the next day, is it time to keep it just for the weekends? 

Then consider taking up hobbies that up your feel good factor.

A study looking at the connection of leisure activities with wellbeing found that those who took the time to engage in uplifting activities reported greater life satisfaction, felt more engaged with life, and had lower depression. They even reported better physical health, such as lower blood pressure. 

8. Deal with the ‘nigglies’.

Anxiety, which thrives on and is fed by uncertainty, is not a logical game. It can leave us worried about all sorts of random weird things in no particular order, like leaving the iron on, getting out and realising we don’t have our phone and don’t know how to contact anyone, or that suddenly all the water in the world will be poisoned and we’ll die of thirst (again, no order, no logic, it is what it is).

In normal times, it can seem best to not indulge our anxious thoughts. But when the entire world is uncertain and you are feeling maxed out, then clearing out the ‘nigglies’ can’t hurt. 

Make a list of all the weird things you constantly are anxious about and deal with what you can. Replace that iron with one that has an automatic turnoff function, memorise three phone numbers of emergency contacts, and buy a filtered straw off the internet so you can drink even bacteria-laden water.

9. Make it mindful.

Mindfulness is made for these sorts of times. It is a free, easy-to-learn tool anyone can do, that is shown by research to lower anxiety and increase acceptance (as well as provide other benefits like improve focus).

The only catch is that you need to be consistent for it to work well. That said, even fifteen minutes a day can be helpful. Learn how now in our free ‘Guide to Mindfulness‘. 

Can therapy help?

Therapy isn’t just for when we are a mess, it’s also for when we just need support to manage better. Particularly if we are the ones everyone else turns to when things get tough and we are all living with uncertainty. Or if we feel unable to show weakness, or always hide our own struggles to cope.

A therapist creates a safe, confidential space where you don’t have to be brave, or nice, or competent. You can download what’s nagging at you, and create space for new perspective and ways forward you hadn’t thought of.

Time to stop secretly struggling and find support to manage better? We connect you with some of London’s most highly rated and regarded therapists. Or use our booking platform to find UK-wide registered therapists for every budget. 


Still have a question about living with uncertainty? Or want to share your own tip with other readers? Post below.

Andrea BlundellAndrea Blundell is the lead writer of this site. An ex screenwriter who went on to do training in coaching and counselling, she is on the anxious side by nature, so uses all these techniques herself these days. Find her on Linkedin

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