A 2022 American Psychological Association poll reported that 81% of Americans experienced stress from global uncertainty resulting from the pandemic. When our income, home, economic, and political future are insecure it can raise a lot of anxiety. The covid pandemic caused a huge amount of uncertainty which we all had to deal with but when compounded by a lack of economic and political stability it can sometimes feel overwhelming.
We are hard wired to scan for danger
We are hard wired to scan for danger. Uncertainty is perceived as danger and so an unpredictable future can trigger the body’s stress response. Uncertainty affects our brain stem by telling us we are unsafe and thus need to take action—run away, stay and fight, or immobilise. We become either hyper- or hypo vigilant. The stress response is a healthy reaction when appropriate in a short-term situation, however continued over a long time it will have an adverse impact on our health. Long term uncertainty therefore can cause both physical and mental health issues.
The not-knowing is the most difficult part. Think of when you have waited for the results of an exam or a health test, or the confirmation of an important loan or a new sales contract. Often once we have actually received the bad news it is easier to deal with. We can take appropriate action after we know the outcome. It is the continual knots in your stomach from not knowing that causes the damage.
Can we become more comfortable with the unknown?
Equally, it is hard to get excited about a piece of work if you think you might not have your job next month. Why put all the effort in if you don’t know where you will be? Uncertainly can cause a lack of engagement. However, even if we cannot plan for an uncertain future, we can become more comfortable with the unknown. Being present to the current moment is the best way to do so, albeit a lifelong practice. In my therapy practice, often I strive to be OK with an unknown outcome. Moreover, uncertainty gives the opportunity for more possibilities for healing.
If our future is too predictable it can also hinder our creativity and productivity. The unknown can reach further into our imagination in a positive way. Too much certainty can feel limiting and restricting.
The important point is that we each have a different appetite for uncertainty depending on our life experience and resiliency. If we can listen to our individual response it will give us more choice over how to respond and what action to take to support ourselves. We can develop skills to respond to the uncertain situation in a helpful way.
Six tips to help mitigate uncertainty as both an employer and as an employee.
Stay in communication. It is all too easy to make up stories in our head about the future. If we keep communicating with our boss/ employee, it can help to relief unnecessary fabricated negative outcomes. Open communication helps us to stay with the facts, rather than the potential fiction.
Ask for help from someone you trust. Asking for support is always a good idea. If you are anxious about an uncertain situation it can help to tell someone you trust. Our neurophysiology responds positively to support.
Acceptance This is an ancient Buddhist practice but one that is also transferable to today. The self–acceptance researcher Kristin Neff advises that finding ways to accept a situation and to move on has many health benefits.
Presence Practicing mindfulness supports us in uncertain situations. Those stories we make up about the future become minimised when we practice being in the present moment. Bring awareness to your senses—taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight—helps to ground you in the moment. It creates a bigger gap between the stimulus and response, giving us more choice over how to respond in any given moment.
Self-care In stressful uncertain times at work, try to spend extra time looking after yourself. Sometimes it can be tempting to turn to food or alcohol to destress, however this can often add to the stress response in the body. Additionally, sometimes we can over work, when a more productive strategy could be to go for a head clearing walk. Be conscious of how you look after your own needs.
Don’t isolate yourself Isolating behaviour can be easy to fall into when the future looks uncertain. If you think about it, it is 99% better to stay connecting with others around you. Share the load. Others may be feeling the same as you.
(2022). Stress in America 2022: Covid second anniversary. American Psychological Association
This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine