Although everyone hoped that things would finally go back to normal this year, the Delta variant has ignited talks of new restrictions, perhaps even another lockdown later this winter. Things are still uncertain, and, after more than one year of stress, restrictions, and personal sacrifices, it’s precisely this uncertainty that can affect people’s mental health.
If not knowing what will happen next gives you anxiety, you’re not alone. The human brain, in general, is hardwired to perceive uncertainty as a threat because it messes with our security and decision-making. In small doses, such as when watching a detective movie, uncertainty can be thrilling, but, at a larger scale, such as the current pandemic, uncertainty can become a major cause of stress.
As we’re being flooded with news about the Delta variant spreading and the possibility of new lockdowns, our minds start making different scenarios and being stuck in a permanent “fight or flight” response, which leads to increased heart rate and a spike in cortisol (the stress hormone). In time, this causes chronic stress, whose risks are already well known. Studies have also shown that people with low tolerance to uncertainty are at a higher risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and developing unhealthy coping mechanisms.
The uncertainty of the pandemic can be hard to process, especially when you’re dealing with the prospects of loved ones getting sick or not being able to enjoy a normal vacation again. Here’s how you can deal with uncertainty in these difficult times and thrive even though you may not know what will happen next month.
A famous proverb says that the only certainty is uncertainty. Most things in life are unexpected, and once you come to terms with that, it will be easier to move forward. Contrary to common belief, accepting a difficult situation doesn’t mean giving up or loving it, for that matter. Acceptance means acknowledging the reality of the situation and your emotions about it instead of resisting it and being stuck in a negative mindset.
Change and uncertainty are disruptions in our routine and, when they occur, it can be tempting to stress over them. If you’re worried about the possibility of new restrictions, you may be tempted to check the news constantly, go through lockdown scenarios or read articles about the pandemic obsessively. But while these habits may seem to quench your need for certainty, they fuel anxiety and do more harm than good in the long run. Instead, focus on the things you can control, such as your family time or work schedule. By creating a routine, even if it’s just sticking to a meal plan or doing yoga before bedtime, you can add some structure to the chaos and cope better with uncertainty.
During stressful periods, it’s easy to forget to look after yourself, and you might start to neglect self-care. And no, self-care doesn’t just mean having a bubble bath or watching your comfort series for the tenth time. It means looking after your health (eating healthy food, not skipping meals), getting enough sleep, finding a balance between work and family life, taking a day off when you feel tired, and maintaining meaningful connections with your loved ones. You may not be able to do all the things you loved before the pandemic, especially if they involved travelling or large crowds, but you can find new hobbies that can fuel personal growth. Self-care can also involve cutting down on the time spent on social media and relying less on the opinions of others. Ultimately, the primary goal of self-care is to nourish your mind and soul and help you feel comfortable with yourself, even if the state of the world is a bit uncertain.
We all have our tiny coping mechanisms that give us a bit of comfort when things don’t go so well: eating ice cream, ordering a pizza, going on a spending spree, or having a glass of wine. These little indulgences aren’t necessarily bad when we do them in moderation. But if you rely on them in the long run, they become unhealthy coping mechanisms: they give you a dopamine boost at that moment by activating the brain’s rewards system, but the satisfaction doesn’t last long, and you’ll find yourself chasing that short-term pleasure constantly.
Instead, try to think of healthy comfort activities that help you in the long run, like catching up with a good friend once a week, rediscovering an old hobby, getting back into reading, meditating, doing yoga, journaling, going for a light walk, or being creative. Apart from offering a much-needed reprise from everything that’s going on in the world, these activities also help you with personal development.
Many of us have a tendency to focus on the bad rather than the good – this is called a negativity bias. The past year and a half has brought some difficult changes, and people who already have a negative bias may find it almost impossible to ignore worst-case scenarios and see any positive aspect to the current situation. However, negativity bias can set you up for failure because when you’re expecting for the worst to happen, you might ignore any opportunities that come your way. When you believe the worst-case scenarios you built in your head, you can feel as if those things have happened in real life. So, instead of expecting the worst (a new total lockdown and strict restrictions), try to think of more positive scenarios too, and look for the silver lining.