How to navigate extreme uncertainty without losing it

A few days ago, I was mindlessly scrolling Instagram stories when I was confronted with the words: NO VACCINE. NO CURE. NO REAL TIMELINE. Now, I’m aware that social media has played an important role in the democratic dispersal of information throughout the pandemic. And the image had good intentions: promoting the necessity of mask-wearing. But it still filled me with dread. In reminding me of the truth — that there is no timeline, no set day, week, month or even year when I will be able to make plans again, the post shattered my illusion of comfort.

Humans don’t deal well with uncertainty, and studies show that unpredictability plays a big role in how we experience acute stress. While the last several months have been psychologically taxing, until recently, we were at least given strict rules. Workplaces, stores, and restaurants in most states and cities closed entirely, and shelter-in-place orders carried clear guidelines. During the last few weeks, however, those orders have started to lift in an effort to “save” the economy.

Lifting orders puts the onus on the individual to stay home, to wear a mask, to distance ourselves. People who don’t really care about catching or spreading the disease will just go to bars and parties and refuse to wear masks, forcing those who are rightfully concerned to retreat even more. This makes the period of time we spend waiting for a vaccine or treatment feel like purgatory. Many regions of the U.S. are experiencing new surges, which has us questioning our every move while dealing with financial turmoil and missing our families and social lives. And this isn’t even a second wave. There is, indeed, not much of a timeline. We’re just expected to float in a sea of questions while maintaining hope.

The fear of uncertainty drives a lot of human behavior. It’s why we thrive when we have routines, make plans, and create structure. On an existential level, it’s often why people turn to religion or astrology in an effort to understand our purpose and future. “All social animals seek familiarity and comfort. Uncertainty creates discomfort, which is unpleasant to face,” says Srinivas Lanka, a London-based psychiatrist. He assures me that this is normal, and adds that being given strict rules and sharing the experience with everyone around us will make it easier. With looser restrictions, we make our own rules. We are no longer in it together, and it’s hard doing the right thing and putting your life on hold while your neighbors have parties.

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The bad news: Lockdown, or some version of it, is an indefinite reality. Even when things return to “normal,” it’s likely you’ll never feel as comfortable in a restaurant, on an airplane, or in other public spaces as you did before. The uncertainty of the pandemic, and of the current limbo we find ourselves in, means that it’s impossible to make plans. You’re likely being given back your normalcy in small slivers: being sent back to work, being allowed to see your grandma (but only in her garden), being allowed to go to the park but not a restaurant. This neither-here-nor-there way of living is uncomfortable, and pandemic purgatory feels even less safe than the hell of a full lockdown: danger is lurking in the shadows, and it’s on you to avoid it.

The kind-of-good news: Certainty is actually an illusion. The structures that form the foundation of our “normal” lives, like work, schedules and vacation plans, are just things that you do to trick yourself into believing that you’re not just a soul trapped in a decaying mortal form that’s hurtling through space and time. You can’t truly plan anything, anyway, and the pandemic has just laid that truth uncomfortably bare.

New York-based psychotherapist Nancy Colier is experienced in managing fear and uncertainty with her clients. She confirms that the “not knowing” is very difficult for most right now. “Human beings don’t do well with uncertainty. We create all these structures that are completely uncertain, but we bet on them,” she says. She adds that, usually, our structures are the way we deal with the inherent uncertainty of life, and we’re struggling so much right now because we cannot control the timeline. “It’s just about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Easier said than done, of course — but that’s where intentional coping skills come in.

Colier believes that, in part, how we experience this purgatory is about perspective. Rather than focusing on the loss of control, we can let the disintegration of those structures and illusions allow us to see things clearly. “What doesn’t crumble when everything else does? Love, our deepest longings. They have nothing to do with being able to go to a restaurant, being able to know where our summer plans are,” she says.

As we sit awaiting a second wave or a vaccine, the experts agree that the only way to not lose it entirely is to attend to the now. “I started making a list of things I am grateful for every day. That really helps me.” Lanka says. Colier adds: “Setting attainable goals on a daily or weekly basis will help,” she says. “Think: What can I do today that makes me feel nourished, what can I do today that makes me feel accomplished?” Some examples she offers are to set a small goal in your home, exercise routine or personal life, and then concentrate wholly on it. “When we’re living with fear we want to pay really close attention to the smallest of tasks. When you’re washing dishes, wash the dishes.” Weirdly, mundane tasks — especially ones that award us a sense of accomplishment — can be empowering.

It isn’t just the lack of timeline that makes this in-between time so difficult, but the lack of benchmarks. Achievements, vacations, weekend plans and other markers that we use to divide our weeks, differentiate the seasons or map professional progress are all somewhat on hold. That means creating new benchmarks. Keep certain activities only for the weekends, finish work on time, and perhaps most importantly, keep a diary. Noting down your achievements, happy moments or anger in a journal will split up the days, meaning that this stretch of time, however long, is a meaningful, demarcated set of distinct months rather than a blur of chaos. It’s all about perspective.

It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s psychologically draining to not have strict rules, particularly when others aren’t following any. However, keeping to the guidelines we have as best you can, finding things to enjoy in your daily life will ease some of the discomfort of purgatory. It sounds wild but work, your health, your travel plans, your tomorrow were never guaranteed in the first place. This pandemic has only made that glaringly obvious. “Part of what’s most liberating is a kind of acceptance of not knowing,” Colier says.