Living with uncertainty
2020 has been marked by uncertainty and constant upheaval. Most of us have been eager to return to normal, when we saw life as more predictable. As challenging and unpredictable as this year has been, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that even during relatively stable times, our lives may still be subjected to uncertainty and change.
We spoke with Donnovan Somera Yisrael, senior health educator, Well-Being at Stanford (Vaden Health Center), on how to accept and live more comfortably with the uncertainty in our lives.
We are motivated to pursue certainty.
Our ancestors were motivated to find stable sources of food, water and shelter to survive and protect their families. This deep need for certainty is true today as we work to address our basic needs and provide for ourselves and loved ones in a highly unpredictable world.
We extend this desire to other areas of our lives that we wish were more certain or unyielding to time, such as being sure that our children will grow up to be successful adults, not wanting our bodies to age, or wishing we didn’t have to perform routine maintenance tasks on our homes or cars.
Yisrael emphasizes that the desire for certainty in an unpredictable world is ingrained in us, and we should be compassionate with ourselves as we work to tolerate uncertainty.
Uncertainty is inherent in life.
The reality of our everyday existence is that things change every day, even when we wish that they would stay the same, and nothing is certain. Random events can and do happen when we’re unprepared to deal with the fallout.
We tend to think of uncertainty, and the stress it causes, as the enemy. We may believe that once we get to the next stage in our lives, such as a new job or a new home, that the uncertainty we’re experiencing will disappear. However, as soon as we get to that new stage, we will encounter different uncertainties relevant to that stage.
If we’re constantly worrying about the next thing that may happen, then we’ll be living under a never-ending existential threat and causing ourselves undue stress that could affect our health, work and relationships. So how can we tolerate the basic idea of uncertainty without making it the enemy and learn to live with its existence?
Reframe uncertainty as normal.
Often, we feel alone and isolated when coping with an adverse event, like we’re more impacted than others or are the only ones going through a difficult time. When Yisrael coaches Stanford students, he validates that the stressful event they are facing, like a break-up or job-hunting, is a normal experience that most people navigate, as their stress often comes from feeling that they’ve made a mistake, failed or have done something wrong.
“The challenge is to begin to accept that uncertainty and change are a normal part of life and understand how to reframe our thinking so we can live without constantly dreading the inevitable.”
Yisrael points to the work of Daniel Siegel who coined the term temporal integration to represent how we can accept both our desire for certainty and our knowledge that uncertainty is the state of things while letting these thoughts coexist alongside each other equally. Yisrael discusses the process of integrating this paradox as letting two separate entities with different viewpoints have a conversation, which leads to healthier thoughts around the concept of uncertainty. For example, acknowledging and holding the thoughts of “I feel like our newly painted home is permanent” and “I know that deterioration is the nature of all things and begins immediately.”
Yisrael reminds us that uncertainty and stress have no valence, even though we tend to think of them as negative. He observes that we enjoy attending social events and watching sports and TV shows because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We may be nervous at potential negative outcomes, but we’re also excited about the possibility of positive outcomes.
Find where you can exert a sense of control.
Like uncertainty, lack of control is the nature of things. For example, a small mistake by another driver can put us in a position with no agency. We aren’t in as much control as we think, even within our own bodies. Fully realizing the nature of our lack of control can be destabilizing and stressful because it poses the opportunity for unwanted events.
A sense of helplessness can be the hardest part of experiencing an adverse event. For example, someone with a serious medical condition who feels they have some control will feel better than someone with a less serious condition who feels they lack control.
“A sense of control and agency is necessary to be in a healthy state of mind. By recognizing what is within our control and accepting what we can’t control, we can better live our lives to the best of our abilities.”
Yisrael points out that what may be in our control may only be something small, such as undertaking a home improvement project, or managing our attitude or emotions towards an event. Regardless, finding even a small sense of control will help your well-being during uncertain times.
Exercise your sense of influence.
Yisrael explains that there’s always some cause or someone you could be helping, either through service or donating. By helping others and working towards correcting social problems, you can feel you have a sense of influence on the world and that your actions matter.
“It has been said that the knowledge that we matter is the most important piece of information we can have.”
He suggests finding a need and trying to the best of your ability to meet that need. It could even be something outside of the box, like fixing a bike and giving it to neighborhood kids. To exercise his own sense of influence, he picks up cigarette butts, and he mentions how his wife and daughter recently wrote postcards for the election.
“What can you do or give to make someone’s life better? What do you have that others need and you can give? This is the fuel that will keep you going.”
Mindfulness and emotional intelligence keep you stable.
Mindfulness and emotional intelligence work together so that a single thought or event are less likely to destabilize you.
Mindfulness allows us to check in with our thoughts and feelings and then to respond with something that is helpful. For example, if you feel bad about making a mistake, mindfulness can help you recognize that you’re experiencing a failure right now rather than internalizing feelings of being a failure. The distance will help you re-center and gain a better perspective, hopefully with the realization that everyone makes mistakes and your self-worth does not hinge on you being perfect.
“Don’t believe everything you think or feel. Feelings present information and should be acknowledged, but the key is how we interpret the feeling to figure out the best move going forward.”
Mindfulness practices can be simple and consist of checking in with what you are thinking, feeling or experiencing in the present moment. Other practices can help you visualize and grow different traits, such as self-compassion, courage, motivation or resilience, to help you overcome obstacles.
Look to our common humanity to find strength and courage.
Regarding adverse social events, Yisrael advises looking at narratives from similar historical or global events, such as the 1918 flu epidemic. He reminds us that pandemics, civil unrest and mismanaged power have been common and regular throughout history and that by tapping into the narratives of people who dealt with similar challenges, either from the past or current day, we can find strength and courage in their experiences. Ask yourself what virtues and characteristics they modeled to weather their circumstances. These can include humility, perseverance, flexibility, resourcefulness, commitment and compassion.
“By acknowledging the adversity faced by others throughout history and the world today, we can gain a sense that we’re all in this together and can draw strength from a sense of common humanity.”
Keep your stride.
We value the resilience and improvisational ability of athletes who are capable of taking unexpected events in stride and not letting the events affect their performance, and we value the resourcefulness of first responders who go into the field not knowing what they will find. Being able to respond well to unpredictable events in our lives requires similar skills.
To keep your stride, Yisrael discusses the importance of resilience practices grounded in a sense that our stability isn’t completely contingent on externals. Resilience resources include any practices that increase a sense of inner flexibility, endurance and strength, which are essential in successfully navigating challenging times. He adds that some of our best resilience resources include our sense of hope, self-efficacy and gratitude.
Yisrael also recommends taking an improv class to move from tolerating to embracing uncertainty. He cites the Stanford improv class he took as a student as foundational in helping him handle the unexpected and become a better presenter and communicator.
Finally, proper sleep, nutrition and exercise are essential in helping you keep your stride, as well as focusing on self-care that prepares you to face your current life challenges.
Practice self-compassion and seek help when needed.
In the midst of elections and a pandemic, it’s important to extend compassion and understanding to ourselves if we are experiencing fear and nervousness. We should also practice self-compassion if we feel we are in survival mode and not excelling in our personal or professional lives. It’s important to not judge ourselves for our feelings, and instead acknowledge these feelings and seek healthy ways to soothe ourselves.
If you’re finding the uncertainty in your life unmanageable, then please reach out to the Faculty Staff Help Center or a mental health care provider. Yisrael notes that it is important to find strategies to handle stress and take care of yourself so you can stay mentally and emotionally healthy.
By Katie Shumake