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How to Manage the Stress of Uncertainty in COVID Times

Posted by Joe Robinson

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As the pandemic continues unabated, some 41% of Americans report levels of anxiety and negative emotions usually associated with generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder, a survey by the U. S. Census Bureau reports. That percentage has increased as the siege has lengthened without any sense of when it will end and normalcy will return.

At the heart of the growing mental strain is uncertainty, something very difficult for humans to bear. We are born to make our world familiar, since that provides a safer path. The unknown is risky, a realm of any number of potential dangers that we are prone to worry about when there is no clarity, even though we have no ability to predict the future.

GET OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS

In fact, the research shows we are terrible predictors. We vastly overestimate the outcomes of future negative scenarios, from how long the negative consequences will last to the intensity of the experience (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg).

What we are very good at is turning the bad forecasting into stress, since the vast majority of predicting we do is taken up with projecting future calamities. We fall prey to what are known as mental simulations about what might lie ahead, and those tend to be scary. Imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios.

One psychological model, the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety, argues that the source of clinical anxiety disorders can be tied to ruminations about the probability and cost of future threats—that we misestimate profoundly.

Since we are lousy at divining the future, cutting the amount of time we spend forecasting future dreads would be a big help in navigating the ether of the indeterminant period we are in. You can start to manage uncertainty, then, by getting out of the prediction business, by catching yourself any time your brain starts to lapse into future horror stories.

UNCERTAINTY AND THE DARK SIDE

The problem is mental simulations. For a species that doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, it would be very helpful for survival to have as much in the immediate environment under control and familiar as possible. And that’s what we have tried to do for millennia, aided by the brain’s knack for leaping to the negative. When we encounter the unknown, the mind errs on the side of the bad outcome, no doubt an adaptive process that has helped us make it to the 21stcentury.

An unprecedented threat such as the coronavirus takes this tendency to the max, leading to a steady stream of negative mental simulations. The process itself isn’t the problem. We use simulations every day for events miniscule (if I tried this release, my bowling score would improve) to large (visualizing yourself getting a Master’s degree). It’s just that uncertainty spins everything to the dark side.

Personal uncertainty upends our efforts to make the world make sense and have a semblance of meaning, both of which offer a measure of control and purpose in a world that is lot more out of control than we admit. COVID-19 has stripped away the usual moorings and increased the threat level with existential risk.

This kind of uncharted unknown is more threatening. It reaches inside to one of our core fears. Researcher R. Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada says fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear of human beings, something so much a part of our experience that it appears to be a separate emotion.  He defines this fear as “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”

NEGATIVE MOOD INCREASES BAD FORECASTS

The “aversive response” to the unknown sets off the stress response that in turn leads to awfulizing about the future. A negative emotional state, especially stress, causes us to dramatically overestimate bad outcomes ahead. One fascinating study that had subjects read a story of a tragic death found that it led to an overestimation of negative future events by 75% (Johnson, Traversky). Fearful people have been found to make much more pessimistic calculations about risk.

So the mood we’re in and how we navigate it, is a key lever in preventing simulations that drive anxiety. Avoid mental simulations about the future when you are in a negative mood. Try it when you’re in a better frame of mind. This means raising awareness, so that you can catch yourself when the gloom of the pandemic’s seeming unending siege takes over, and put off future imaginings for another time.

The key to defeating stress is being able to appraise the threat in a way that allows you to change its power, from something that overwhelms your capacity to handle it to something controllable. You can do that simply by changing the language of your self-talk. Emotions attach themselves to words in our verbal universe in habitual ways, making it seem that dire thoughts are real or definitions of who we are, when they are just thoughts.

Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada calls this cognitive fusion. The thought in your head says, I can’t take this pandemic isolation chamber any longer, I’m losing it, as if your first name was Losing It. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I can’t take the pandemic,” or “I’m having the feeling of losing it.” Labeling your thoughts as thoughts, which he calls cognitive defusion, separates you from knee-jerk, emotion-word fusings that hold you hostage to false beliefs.

IT'S NOT FOREVER

The tough part of uncertainty, of course, is the lack of an end date. But we know the pandemic is going to end at some point, and this reality is important to reframing the story to something survivable that can tune down the anxiety.

Stress and pessimism fuel a distorted belief that the stressful situation is permanent. It’s taking forever. When the uncertainty builds, keep reminding yourself it’s temporary. Keep a log of the positive things that happen each day. Those help build up the engine of resilience, optimism.

One of the things that compounds the stress of the unknown is not being able to plan. Planning is part of how we make chaos predictable and manageable. Though it’s hard to plan vacations or activities deep into the future for a while, we can still plan short-term—your to-do list for the day, the week, and leisure activities during the week and on the weekend that serve as a critical stress buffer and outlet from isolation and monotony.

We can also manage the stress of uncertainty as we do any other type of stress, by adjusting how we think about the challenge, in this case, of change, open-ended ambiguity, and the virus’s existential threat, and the risk we feel from them. We know this is possible, because we all know people who are handling the current pressures better than others.

The difference comes down to cognitive appraisal—how we size up the threat. Optimists, for instance, are better at framing positive outcomes from an indeterminant miasma, but anyone can give worst-case scenarios and dreads a wide berth by learning how to appraise the unknown in ways that give you more perceived control, that shift attention, and that increase your tolerance of ambiguity.

LIVING WITH RISK

You don’t have to know the future to be able to live in the present. The opposite is also true. The more caught up we are in living for tomorrow, the less we can live now in the only tense available for that activity. Trying to find absolute security in a world that is fundamentally insecure drives insecurity and anxiety. Life is a series of nonstop out-of-left-field experiences. What if you didn’t have to know when the world was going to be back to normal?

You can shift your thoughts from trying to have everything figured out in a hazy new world to a mantra that gets you out of the prediction business: I don’t know how, but somehow. I will get through it. 

What if we could learn to live with uncertainty and risk? Carleton says tolerating uncertainty is our best chance of reducing anxiety and managing a world we can’t control. The psychologists call it Uncertainty Tolerance (UT), while entrepreneurial experts dub it tolerating ambiguity. It’s the idea of being able to persist in the face of challenges for which we have insufficient information to make many crucial decisions. Essentially, it’s the act of living with risk, i.e. life itself.

UNCERTAINTY TOLERANCE BUILDS RESILIENCE

Increasing uncertainty tolerance is a lesson that can be very helpful in a post-pandemic world. People who are higher in UT are more likely to report lower negative affect and higher life satisfaction. You become more resilient and able to bounce back. People with high uncertainty tolerance also are more adaptable, something essential to progress and growth.

And you get better at another key to managing the unknown and anxiety—taking a problem-solving approach instead of an emotion-based one. If you can’t solve the problem, you don’t despair. You come back to it and look at it from different approaches. You improvise, experiment. It’s a work in progress. You answer anxiety with factual reality, with workarounds that give you a perception of more control.

The reality is we are all in a marathon, not a sprint—and that’s true for life beyond the pandemic. We have to pace ourselves, be patient, and see ourselves crossing the finish line on the other side of the crisis, because that will happen. It’s a certainty.

If you would like to help your team manage uncertainty and stress as well as stress and pressures on the job, click the button below for details on my Calm in the Storm Stress Management program.

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Tags: resilience, managing stress reactions, employee stress management programs, employee stress management training, uncertainty and stress, managing mental simulations, Covid19 stress, Covid19 anxiety

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated obsessing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and burnout in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions.

It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being convinced on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system.

Ruminating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats today. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response suppresses the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse.

Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to even bigger problems, cardiovascular issues and depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. 

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job." "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic "explanatory style," as its known. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. 

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying makes us take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Martin Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and in some cases depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER visit. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear that is flaring, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“I don't react,” “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “I move on.” Repeat it for several minutes.

DISPUTING THE BOGUS STORY

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or a screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life on the false beliefs of rumination.

If you would like to learn more about our employee stress management programs, click the button below for details on the program and pricing.

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Tags: stress management training, stress management trainer, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, employee stress management programs

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