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How to cope with uncertainty

Specialist Nurse Adviser for Mental Health, Bupa UK
26 March 2020

Things feel very uncertain for most people right now. It’s completely natural to feel worried and anxious about what the future may bring. You and your family’s health and financial security will likely be in the forefront of your mind most days.

When we aren’t sure how things will pan out, feelings of uncertainty can be very unsettling. Letting your mind play out potential scenarios or ‘worst case’ situations can bring about anxiety, stress and insomnia.

Currently, the changes that are happening are out of our control. But what we can do is control how we respond to them, as well as shift our attention to the present moment. Here I give my top tips to dealing with uncertainty to support your mental health and patterns of thinking over the coming weeks and months.

Focus on the things you can control

Switch your focus to smaller, daily tasks that you can control. You could make a list of what you want to achieve that day and make a point of carrying them out, ticking them off as you go. Establish routines to give your days and weeks some comforting structure.

Be kind to yourself

Have self-compassion during this time. People around you may appear to deal with the situation better, but it’s OK to react differently to others. What’s important is to be patient with yourself and develop a kind, encouraging inner voice. Don’t be critical of yourself or the thoughts you may have.

Maintain routines and self-care

Don’t let worry or stress derail your daily routines and general health. Make an extra effort to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Maintain regular routines, or embrace new ones, including washing and dressing, daily chores and housework, exercising, cooking and fun activities.

If you have children at home, help them keep to some sense of routine. A chalk board or white board in the kitchen could be a good way to set out your day ahead, perhaps in rough time slots. This will give you a degree of control and certainty of what’s ahead.

Reduce your exposure to the media

Although the news is important to follow for updates, don’t watch, read or scroll through social media too much. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed and even more uncertain. Set a time each day where you plan to catch up on the news, then switch off and focus on something at home you can control. Avoid watching the news before going to bed if you feel anxious, as this can affect your sleep.

See the positives and possibility

At a time like this, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and what may be lost or how different things are. But what about the positives and possibilities that may now be open to you? A blank slate ahead means that there's nothing yet written. Focus on the positives of today, but also the possibilities that may lie ahead.

Reflect on previous times of uncertainty

Remind yourself that you’ve faced times of uncertainty before and you got through them. A psychological concept known as ‘hindsight bias’ says that we tend to create the illusion that everything in our past was certain. But in reality, it was once uncertain.

Reflect on previous moments where you felt uncertain and then appreciate where you are now. Times like this do pass and feelings of uncertainty will ease. Can you remember what helped you before? Write down past events and moments where you felt unsettled and what the outcome was. It may help you feel stronger about your current situation.

Stay connected

Make a point of staying connected with friends and family on the phone, via video calls or other social apps. At times when you feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, call a close family member or friend who you know has a more positive outlook on situations. You are certain to feel better by the end of the call, just talking through your worries.

Caroline Harper
Specialist Nurse Adviser for Mental Health, Bupa UK

    • Terry ML, Leary MR. Self-compassion, self-regulation, and health. Self Identity 2011; 10(3):352–62. doi:10.1080/15298868.2011.558404
    • Mental health and psychosocial considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 12 March 2020
    • Bernstein DM, Erdfelder E, Meltzoff AN, et al. Hindsight Bias from 3 to 95 Years of Age. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 2011; 37(2):378–391. doi:10.1037/a0021971

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