Uncertainty has always played a central role in our lives. For some of us though, it’s never been more consistent, or chronic, than it has been over the past year due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Left unaddressed, uncertainty can take a toll on our health and impact everything from our emotional and psychological systems to our physical well-being. There are several ways to manage the effects of chronic uncertainty. But first, it helps to understand the nature of uncertainty and how exactly it affects our minds and bodies.
Prediction in the face of uncertainty
No one can predict the future which means that everyone deals with uncertainty to some degree. To counter our lack of fortune-telling abilities, humans are constantly predicting outcomes. Predicting outcomes is a task that our brain is hardwired to perform because we need to be able to prepare for and adapt to changes. What’s more, predicting occurs consciously and unconsciously in our minds.
Conscious prediction occurs at our level of awareness and includes forecasting future events with thoughts, like budgeting our finances, planning a vacation, or predicting the outcome of a conversation we are about to have. Unconscious predictions, however, are human responses underneath our thoughts and awareness, like tensing up when we hear a loud noise, or clenching our muscles when we stress over an upcoming work presentation.
The pandemic, however, has influenced a great deal of uncertainty in multiple aspects of life; including physical, mental and spiritual health, financial safety, social connections, and access to public and social institutions. To add to the ambiguity humans regularly face, these dramatic changes have occurred for over one year, with no concrete time frame of our return to the status quo. The acuity, duration and frequency of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic can foster an environment of chronic uncertainty, a state of constant prediction under physical, emotional and psychological distress – affecting physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Uncertainty vs. the brain and body
A way to understand how chronic uncertainty affects the body, mind and emotions of people is to understand how stress affects each aspect. Stress on the body is important for adaptation and growth, however, stress over time can lead to a variety of physical ailments and injury. The same could be said for emotional and psychological systems. When we predict or perceive a threat, areas of the brain that are responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response become more active.
This process also influences a variety of electrical and chemical processes across not only the brain but the whole body. While this system is extremely important in times of danger, like running away from a grizzly bear, we are not designed to constantly live in this state of fight/flight/freeze, and continuous use of this system can wear out the body and brain. Think about having to run away from the grizzly bear every minute of every day.
Symptoms of “Chronic Uncertainty”
Living with chronic uncertainty, people may develop anxiety and other stress-related disorders due to the constant barrage of stress on the body and the brain. Some of the long-term physical symptoms of these issues are weakened immune system, weight gain, weight loss, heart disease, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension/strain, and insomnia. Some of the long-term psychological and emotional symptoms of stress-related issues are Depression, issues regulating mood, apathy and emotional withdrawal, and feelings of isolation.
Ways to deal with “Chronic Uncertainty”
Promoting structure in your life – creating a consistent daily schedule is an effective way to minimize stress in uncertain times. While you can’t control everything, setting up a routine can reduce uncertainty in areas of your life that do not need to be uncertain.
Exercise – physical exercise is a great way to alleviate stress and reduce the acuity of symptoms from stress-related issues. Exercise also releases endorphins which are the body’s natural stress-relief hormones.
Therapy/Counseling/Support groups – getting help from a mental health professional can offer insight and objectivity to life situations. When we are in fight/flight mode it might be hard to see solutions because areas of the brain that are related to reason and logic are impaired. Therapists and counsellors are often trained to assist people in managing stress and ambiguity. Support groups offer social connection.
Meditation – stress and chronic uncertainty are states of being that are acutely focused on a future event. Practising meditation and mindfulness to enter the present moment can alleviate patterns of thinking that encourage constant prediction and stress.
Though the pandemic may soon be coming to an end, there may still be lingering feelings of chronic uncertainty. But by following these steps, those who experience chronic uncertainty can better manage the stress and emotional toll that uncertain times can take on your wellbeing. For individuals who continue to experience some of the symptoms of chronic uncertainty, you are not alone and there are multiple options for help and support.
Mike Gallagher is the clinical director of Shoreline Recovery Center in Encinitas, CA. Mike graduated with his Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Capella University, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, and has been working in the field of mental health and addiction treatment since 2015.