Psychology of uncertainty and not knowing what’s next

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been going on in the United States for months, and yet many questions still remain. The biggest one for many Americans is: When will life go back to normal? And, what will that new normal even look like?

As summer approaches, you may find yourself longing for events that you would typically look forward to, such as vacations, holidays or time spent with your family.

On social media, people who are currently sheltering in place expressed that it’s challenging to not have anything to look forward to or anticipate.

Without these usual benchmarks, you might feel off or sad. “Uncertainty doesn’t sit well,” Kevin Antshel, clinical psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at Syracuse University tells CNBC Make It.  

Here’s how to cope with not knowing what’s coming next.

Why humans hate the unknown

“The fear of the unknown is possibly the most fundamental fear of human beings,” Antshel says.  

From an evolutionary perspective, humans have been able to survive because we’re able to plan. We’re socialized from childhood to believe that “there’s a predictable universe” and order in which things should happen, Antshel says.

“Extraordinarily high levels of uncertainty are really against how we’ve advanced as human beings,” he says. For example, under normal circumstances, you’d be able to assemble the resources necessary to achieve a plan, and then go implement it.

“When things don’t make sense, or they run counter to what it typically is, then we experience these high levels of negative feelings,” Antshel says.

What uncertainty feels like

We’re hand-wired to avoid uncertainty, because it makes us feel lots of negative emotions, Antshel says. The “vast majority” of people are experiencing some level of emotional distress or unpleasant emotions during this time, he says.

These feelings all come back to uncertainty. “Fear and anxiety really run hand-in-hand: The more things are uncertain, the more we’re going to fear, and the more we fear things, the more we are anxious,” he says. While planning for post-pandemic life can feel comforting, thinking too much about the future can also increase our anxious thoughts.

The more prolonged anxiety is, the more likely it is to manifest itself as depression, which is characterized by a loss of interest in things, hopelessness and helplessness, he says. It can feel like this difficult period will be going on forever, with no end in sight.

On top of this, you might find that you’re mourning the loss of events that you were anticipating, such as weddings, big work projects or graduation.

How to get comfortable with unpredictability

It’s important to think about “how we frame things to ourselves internally,” Antshel says.

Instead of thinking, “I’m going stir-crazy working from home,” for example, you might tell yourself, “I’m grateful that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to stay safe at home.” It sounds like a simple tweak but re-framing your thoughts can have a profound effect on your anxiety levels.

Another helpful coping mechanism is to “engage in things that are goal-oriented, but are not necessarily goal-directed for the future,” Antshel says. Projects or hobbies (such as baking bead or doing a puzzle) that can give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to have a certain outcome of certainty can be soothing.

And finally, it can be reassuring to understand that your feelings are very normative. “People who had never considered themselves to be anxious or depressed or now reporting these symptoms,” he says.

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