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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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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

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