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Accepting Uncertainty

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

A great lie of life is that you can control uncertainty. Uncertainty is one of the wonders of life. As well as creating discomfort, it allows us to experience anticipation, excitement, and surprise. The goal of life is not to reduce uncertainty, but to allow it to be and flourish in its challenges and joys.

At the time of writing this, Australia and particularly Victoria is going through another rise of uncertainty as more people are contracting COVID-19.

It can be challenging to start the year with this. It is bringing up uncertainty and anxiety for many: wondering if they will get COVID-19 or when; not knowing how unwell they or their family will become; concern that they might carry it and pass it on to vulnerable community members; not knowing whether or not they should be attending activities that are still allowed but may be higher risk.

Working in oncology, I regularly support people to manage other types of health uncertainties. Whilst cancer is clearly a very different illness to COVID-19, the way to manage the uncertainty is similar. Here are my top tips.

Tip #1 - Acknowledge your feelings!

Uncertainty is hard, even though it’s not harmful. It’s uncomfortable, it triggers anxiety, and it can take up a lot of your focus. Acknowledge this with compassion towards yourself. This is a challenging experience. It won’t last forever, but right now you might find it hard. Try writing down your thoughts/feelings to help you understand them and acknowledge them.

Tip #2 - Detach from your thoughts

The human brain has evolved to become like a problem solving machine. The mind’s job is to watch out for potential threats (like COVID-19), and try to problem solve how to protect you from these threats. This is what’s kept us safe for thousands of years. So your mind is just doing its job by going over and over these thoughts! (Thanks mind!!)

But these problems can’t always be solved. Ruminating on whether or not you get COVID-19 or become very unwell does not protect you as long as you already follow the recommended health advice. But also trying to convince yourself that the thoughts won’t come true doesn’t work, because they could come true. That’s the thing with uncertainty, the challenge sits in the not knowing. Some people find it helpful to try to convince themselves that they won’t become really unwell based on the facts, but for others it won’t feel useful because you don’t know for sure either way.

So instead you can detach from your thoughts. Detaching from thoughts involves unhooking from the story of thoughts and not going into whether or not they will come through. This allows you to refocus on what’s important in your day/life instead. A few of my favourite ways of doing this:

  • Notice that thoughts are like clouds in the sky that you can’t control but will always pass with time. Practice stepping back and just watching them passing through without trying to control them or push them through more quickly.

  • Imagine your thoughts are like a radio that you can’t turn off, but you can choose to turn the volume down so they become background noise while you focus on what’s most important to you instead.

  • Name the story of your thoughts (e.g., “The ___ Story”) and instead of going over this story that you’ve heard a hundred times, just acknowledge “Here’s The ___ Story again, I know this one, I don’t need to go over it again”.

  • Imagine putting all these thoughts in a backpack and taking them along with you for the day. You can’t get rid of them so instead invite them along to whatever is more important without arguing with them.

"True detachment isn’t separation from life but the absolute freedom within your mind to explore living". – Ron. W. Rathbun

Tip #3 - Increase your tolerance of uncertainty

If you find focusing on what is in your control isn’t enough for you right now, try to increase your accepting the uncertainty instead. Often when you face big uncertainty like a pandemic, you might compensate by not tolerating any uncertainty and focusing too much on control. Instead, you could find opportunities to sit with other uncertainties so that your brain gets used to the fact that uncertainty is not a threat, the anxiety will pass in time, and you can cope with it.

Some common examples where you could practice sitting with uncertainty include:

· Watching a movie without seeing the trailer beforehand, sit with the uncertainty of not knowing if it will be any good or not!

· Trying a new product without asking others or looking at reviews about it.

· Not checking your phone, accept the uncertainty of whether or not you have a message.

· Send a message or email without re-reading it first, accept that there may be a spelling mistake.

· Allow someone else to make all the plans next time you go out.

Keep a record of what happened on these occasions, to help notice that each time you do this the anxiety gets less and less and you get better at sitting with uncertainty. I don’t recommend this strategy if you’re already feeling really anxious as you may need a bit of support from your healthcare professional to help you.

Tip #4 - Focus on what is in your control

You’ve heard it dozens of times during this pandemic, but that’s because it can work for many people! Try making a list of the things you can’t control, acknowledge them and then detach from them using the above thought strategies. Then make a list of the things you can control and choose to focus on this.

Tip: start with really small things, such as controlling what time you wake up, what you have for a drink etc.

Tip #5 - Calm your body

Our brain looks out for potential threats more when we are stressed or anxious. Anxiety is like our brain’s danger alarm, so it makes sense that when we are anxious, we might worry more. Relaxation calms the body down again to let the brain know that it is safer now, and the threat monitoring response (or worrying) can subside.

Find your favourite app or guided relaxation (or check out ours here) and aim to do it 15 minutes, 5 days (because I think daily is unachievable for most of us!!!).

You've got this!

You've got this! This is not the first time you've faced uncertainty. The only certain thing is that it won't be the last. You've managed before and you will continue to manage in this wild world of unknowns



Additional Resources:

Some resources to help you along with some of these strategies include:

Russ Harris’ video on The Struggle Switch:

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