Kitchener-Waterloo

Is uncertainty your enemy? Here are some tips to manage it

One by one, provinces are unveiling their plans for reopening — some are offering hard dates, while others have described their plans as more of a roadmap than a calendar. So, how is all this uncertainty impacting our happiness and well-being?
One by one, provinces are unveiling their plans for reopening — some are offering hard dates, while others have described their plans as more of a roadmap than a calendar. So, how is all this uncertainty impacting our happiness and well-being? (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Many of us have been waiting to hear the date: a clear answer on when things might be going back to some type of normal.

One by one, provinces are unveiling their plans for reopening — some are offering hard dates, while others have described their plans as more of a roadmap than a calendar. So, how is all this uncertainty impacting our happiness and well-being?

Research studies have shown that our brains crave certainty, something we are lacking right now, and it has some experts saying this is the hardest part of coping with the pandemic.

Our brains don't like uncertainty. It's like a type of pain, something we want to avoid. Certainty, on the other hand, feels rewarding, and we tend to steer toward it.

It's all about the burst of dopamine we get when a circuit is completed. It makes us feel better.

It is also part of why we are drawn to hard dates for reopening or when the kids will go back to school.

Open-ended windows of time are challenging in normal times, but in already uncertain times, it can be even more challenging.

"People build a sense of self-efficacy in part from having faced and overcome similar challenges in the past. Because we largely (and collectively) don't have past experience to draw on, it can do a real number on our self-efficacy," said Anne Wilson, a professor of social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

In our interview she also shared that, "in periods of time that have an uncertain or ambiguous endpoint, like this one does, time tends to feel like it's stretched out subjectively longer. That can be especially troubling when it's paired with anxiety and negative emotions because it's a lot easier to cope with an unpleasant time when we see the light at the end of the tunnel than when it seems interminable."

Ambiguity can warp concept of time

Fascinating research published by the American Psychological Association on PsycNet, called "Anticipated Ambiguity Prolongs the Present: Evidence of a Return Trip Effect," echoes Dr. Wilson's comments.

Researchers found, "Every event that can occupy a span of time can also warp how long that duration feels."

The research discovered that when we are ambiguous about the length of time it will take to get to our destination or unsure of where the destination is itself — it can warp our concept of how long it took to get there.

It may take us the exact same amount of time to return to where we came from, but it can feel much shorter than it did on our way to the destination.

Strategies for coping with uncertainty

It may benefit us to create more "grounding moments."

Make your bed, set an alarm clock (it doesn't have to be at 5 a.m.), have lunch at the same time every day or go for walk at exactly 7 p.m. by setting a timer.

Little choices help us to control the things we can — not huge lifts but small manageable goals.

I mention this often in my columns, but I can't say it enough, do one small good thing for someone else. It removes the focus on you and places it on serving someone else. Our brains love that.

Also, since time can be relative, we can recall moments where we felt like the moment would never pass.

For me, I remember the first three months of being a new mom . They honestly felt like the hardest months of my life.

The days were long and the nights were infinite. Now, that first born is 12 years old, and it felt like those first three months were a tiny blip in my history.

I wish I could go back and hold on longer to even those hardest nights when he was a baby.

We are tired of every day spilling over into the next, but we can try to recenter our concept of time.

It doesn't feel like it now, but I am confident that for most of us, it will not fill up the same space in our overall mental history one day.

False hope

Although we absolutely need hope to get through this, we don't want false hope.

A flexible, forward-looking mindset is preferable to a rigidly fixed mindset.

But there are many situations where a realistic acceptance of a negative outcome is more beneficial than clinging to a hope that will likely not happen.

If the odds of a favourable outcome are little to none, it just makes sense to moderate our perspective so that it's more in line with real-life eventualities.

We may think getting a hard date, such as schools reopening at a specific time, will make us feel reassured. But if it isn't likely to happen, it can create more uncertainty. At that point, we're actually better to be told it won't likely happen, and then, if it does, we're pleasantly surprised.

It all boils down to expectation management, really.

Information craving

First, we have to stop "information craving," which is a belief that information will cure our uncertainty.

For example, Google searches of "reopen Ontario" starting March 18 have steadily increased, with a recent peak on April 25.

That was even before Premier Doug Ford's announcement about his reopening strategy on April 27.

Scientists say information craving is typical when we are in times of extreme uncertainty. Sometimes the information helps. But when we watch and re-watch the same communications despite knowing what we need to do (wash our hands, practice social distancing, wear masks, stay home) it doesn't make us more effective or adaptive.

We're all going to have embedded memories of this experience.

It's wrought with emotion, and for many of us, it will take some time to let go of the negative way this experience made us feel.

This is not an easy time that will be easily be forgotten, but it will fade into the distance. 

Although this is a prediction and I am not certain of it, I am both optimistic and hopeful that we will be better off for it. 

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