What Can We Do About The Second Wave Of Uncertainty?

So, uh…is anyone else been getting a feeling of déjà vu and mild dread this past week? It isn't just me?

If you live in Canada, you'll know that we are all on the edge of our seats as we creep towards a second wave of COVID-19. And sure, we all knew this was coming but dang, this time it doesn't feel good to be right.

With this creeping dread comes a feeling of uncertainty, so let's talk more about that in this blog post, and what we can do manage it.

Let's get into it!

A Recap On Uncertainty

You may remember my post from 6 months ago, where I talked about the uncertainty we were are all facing due to COVID-19 (the first time around).

*sigh* We were so young. So naïve. So innocent.

Half a year later (I can’t believe I’m saying that), and we’re back for round 2.

We’ve all come to accept that uncertainty is the theme for 2020. Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, one thing that is certain is :

Uncertainty is the name of the game this year

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Sure, uncertainty is a normal part of our lives. But before this year, I don’t think many of us really knew what real, uninterrupted, global uncertainty looked like.

The main reason uncertainty why sucks so much is because it takes away control from us. And we all want to be in control of our lives.

Maladaptive Behaviours In Response To Uncertainty

This intolerance of uncertainty can lead to several behaviours that aren’t very adaptive or healthy, but help us cope in the moment. These include worrying and anxiety.

Worrying

We all worry.

Worrying helps us think of the possible negative outcomes in a given situation. It can include “what if?” questions, which aren’t very helpful and lead to increased anxiety.

What if we go into another lockdown?”

What if I get COVID-19 this time?”

What if I lose my job?”

To combat that anxiety and to prepare ourselves, we try think of possible negative scenarios that could take place.

The thing is, these scenarios may not even happen. By spending time and energy planning to combat them in our heads, we’re just increasing our anxiety levels.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds exhausting and frankly, I’m already tired as it is.

Avoidance

Another way we try to combat uncertainty is to just avoid things that make us feel uncertain. We stay within our comfort zone, sticking with things that make us feel safe and secure.

While feeling safe is good, avoiding things can be unhelpful and destructive. We may miss out on important information or valuable experiences because of this avoidance.

For example, checking the news about COVID-19 may make you feel uncertain and anxious, so you completely stop reading the news and avoid any updates about the situation in your area.

While this relieves some of your anxiety, you may miss out on important information that would help you stay safe.

Uncertainty And Stress

Apart from anxiety, uncertainty can lead to significant stress and lower mental well-being.

In a variety of experiments where participants receive mild electric shocks, it has been observed that the stress of unpredictability leads to individuals preferring immediate electric shocks over delayed, unpredictable shocks.

Participants also felt that unpredictable shocks were subjectively stronger than expected ones. They felt greater anxiety and helplessness when exposed to unpredictable shocks.

When it comes mental well-being in the time of COVID-19, a recent study found that there is an indirect relationship between a high intolerance of uncertainty and low mental well-being, which is mediated by greater levels of rumination and levels of fear of COVID-19.

So now what? Uncertainty is inevitable and it’s uncomfortable. Apart from becoming comfortable with this discomfort, what can we do to manage our intolerance of uncertainty?

Hope - The Missing Link?

You may or may not be rolling your eyes at the header. Hope? Really? How cliché.

But is it? What if hope is the missing piece to this puzzle?

I know it can seem really difficult and almost impossible to be hopeful in a time like this. Everything seems to be going off the rails. We had a couple of months of almost-normalcy but now that might be in jeopardy.

On top of that, many of us have finally opened our eyes to the injustices that we were privileged enough to be able to ignore for most of our lives.

So, hope? In this economy? Yah, no, I don’t know about that.

But we must be hopeful. We must. And nowadays, hope is exactly what we need to carry on.

What exactly is hope and why is it so essential in a time like this?

Why We Need Hope

Hope is defined as “the belief that we can make things happen, and the motivation to reach a desired outcome.”

For my urdu speakers the saying goes "umeed pe dunya kaayim hai" (hope makes our world go around)

Hope isn’t necessarily something we can see or touch. It’s a feeling that can’t really be quantified. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Yes, hope is a subjective perception but it is unique because this perception can shape our reality.

By having hope for something that doesn’t exist yet, we create an expectation of its existence. And research suggests that by having hope for our goals, they are more likely to become a reality. Having hope is the first step in making things happen.

On the physical side, hope can reduce your perception of physical pain. By replacing the negative psychological hold that physical pain can have with being hopeful and optimistic, people view their pain as less debilitating.

Hope and optimism have also been associated with protection against chronic illnesses, as it serves as a stress-reduction method.

When it comes to combatting uncertainty, hope is the key. By having hope for our futures, even when our present seems bleak, we can fight against the temptation to run away from our problems and give into the anxiety.

Hope gives an opportunity to ask ourselves “what if everything will be ok?”

3 Ways To Be More Hopeful

1. Remember You Can Still Be In Control

Our intolerance and fear of uncertainty is based in our discomfort with a lack of control. But it’s important to remember that we haven’t completely lost control in our lives. There are many things that we are still able to dictate and control.

Yes, you may not be able to control when you’ll go back to work, or when your kids will be able to safely go back to full-time school. You may not be able to control when you’ll go on your next overseas vacation.

But you can control other things. You can control your perspective and how you see the world every time you wake up in the morning.

You can set new goals and partake in different activities, even if the world is scary and uncertain. By doing so, you’re fighting against uncertainty.

You may be slightly worried and you may be tempted to run away and avoid it all. But by staying put and making plans to continue living your life, making decisions and laying out personal goals, you’re looking uncertainty right in the eye and saying “not today.”

In many ways, “hope is more than a feeling; it’s a way of thinking that pushes us to take action.”

This also a good time to remember the concept of resilience. When we live through adversity, we can become stronger, more capable and adaptive. Hope plays a significant role in the way we see adversity, and helps us become more resilient.

This isn’t me telling you that just by being hopeful we’re going to cure COVID-19, end racism and injustice and eradicate poverty.

But hope helps move us to action. Hope helps us become better members of society because we hope for good and thus, we want to become a part of that good.

2. Reframe Your Negative Thoughts

It’s easy to fall into the seductive trap of depressing, negative thought patterns.

“What if?” phrases are notorious for making us fall into this kind of despair. It’s important for us to identify those thoughts and reframe them in a positive way.

We can use a specific kind of tool used in cognitive-behavioural therapy to help us with this. It’s called the ABCDE model.

The ABCDE Model

A - Activating Event/Adversity

We start with the activating event or adversity that causes us to worry, feel uncertain and changes our emotions.

An example would be the knowledge that there’s a sudden rise in cases of COVID-19 in Toronto and we might be nearing a second wave.

B - Belief System

Our belief system makes us to react to the adverse event. In maladaptive thought patterns, this belief system is often negative and leads to negative self-talk. We need to become aware of it in order to fight it.

Example: You may think "we’re going to go into a lockdown and everything will change. Life is going to become more difficult and bleak and all my plans are going to be messed up again. I won’t be able to handle it."

C - Consequences

We must recognize and acknowledge the consequences that are caused by this negative self-talk.

Thinking that everything is going to go bad makes your perspective negative and pessimistic, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, worrying and avoiding this uncertainty of a impending second wave is only going to make your mental well-being worse.

D - Dispute

D dispute and challenge these irrational and negative beliefs. Review, analyze, challenge using evidence, logic and honest, realistic perspectives.

In the present example, listen to what the experts are saying. What can you do to stay safe? What did you previously that worked well? What have you learned in the past 6 months?

E - Energize and Effect Change

By breaking down and re-examining your negative thought patterns, you’re practicing cognitive restructuring. This allows you to redefine the way adversity affect your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

After practicing this model, when you hear about the increase in cases and the possibility of a lockdown, you feel worried but you don’t let your thoughts run wild. You take a minute to slow down and take stock of your situation. This allows you to make rational decisions and realize that you’ve gone through this challenge before, and you can do it again.  

Practicing the ABCDE model allows you to make room for hope. Yes your life will change, again, and things may not go back to “normal” for a while.

But what is “normal” anyway? Change your definition, make a new “normal” or embrace “abnormality”.

3. Go Back To The Basics

What makes you happy? Like, truly happy? The kind of happiness that makes you feel warm, safe and secure?

This happiness can be a person, a pet, an activity or an experience.

Whatever it is, go back to your happy basics.

Think of what gives you joy and happiness and engage in those activities. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or complicated.

Maybe it’s spending time with your friends, safely in person or virtually. You could hang out with your family, and watch your favourite childhood movie.

Or perhaps you enjoy nature and (like myself) you're excited about fall (objectively, the best season and you can quote me on that), including the best holiday of the year, Halloween (yes, I know it's only September).

Maybe you feel true joy when you take time to pray or engage in spiritual activities.

If you're looking for some ideas, check out our "Small Joys" series where we talk about the mental health benefits of life's small joys - which are bigger than you may think.

Whatever it is, being hopeful is closely tied to how you feel on the inside. You can’t feel hopeful if you feel miserable and upset. Go back to what makes you the happiest. It doesn't have to be Instagram-worthy and no one else has to know.

Before You Go

Before you leave this post, I want to remind you that uncertainty is normal and to be expected in a time like this.

And while hope can be extremely useful in helping us manage the anxiety that comes with experiencing uncertainty, constant, endless hope isn't possible or sustainable.

So be hopeful and be optimistic but remember to take a break. You're allowed to feel anxious and worried every now and then, just don't let it overwhelm you.

Remember: there is reason to hope. We must allow ourselves to feel hopeful and to look forward to the future. The anxiety and uncertainty of today shouldn't stop us from being excited about the promises of tomorrow.

Like I said, umeed pe dunya kaayim hai (hope makes our world go round)

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services