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4 Steps to Dealing with Uncertainty

Don’t worry about predicting the future. Instead, focus on what you can handle right now.

Woman looking at schedule, worried

Updated on August 2, 2023

As much as we don't like to admit it—or deal with it—the fact is that modern life comes with large helpings of uncertainty. Whether the result of pandemics, climate turmoil, or merely the vagaries of typical human life, it can often be stressful to look ahead to make plans for the future.

The ambiguities of life can lead to considerable worry. But what can you do to prevent your concerns from turning into anxiety or panic? Read on for expert tips from Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, head of mental and behavioral health at Sharecare and director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.

Look at what you can control

Our brains are set up to plan for a later time. It helps us feel in control. But given the way in which factors outside our control often change our best-laid plans, it can be difficult to adapt.

“When there isn’t enough information to plan, we start spinning out in what is called perseveration,” says Dr. Brewer. “That’s just a fancy term for our brains getting caught in repetitive thought loops.”

Brewer mentions that lack of information often leads people to think about “what if” scenarios that are not based on real facts. Trying to predict what may happen during stressful times leads to worry. And if your mind is dominated by hypothetical scenarios—some of them scary, some of them even scarier—all of the time, worry can easily turn to panic.

Instead of focusing on what could happen or what we don’t know about the outcome, it’s important to look at what you can control.

Start with the here and now

If you are starting to become anxious about the future, slow down and focus on the present. Remind yourself to start with today. Sketch out a loose schedule for your day or even just what you want to do for the next few hours. Making a few decisions about your immediate needs is one step toward feeling in control of your situation. 

If making a plan for the entire day feels overwhelming—and there’s no shame in admitting that—Brewer suggests addressing something essential to your basic needs that can be easily accomplished.

“For example, you can check in with yourself right now to see if you are hungry or thirsty,” says Brewer. “Based on that information, you can decide whether you need to eat or drink something. Now you’re making decisions, in the present, based on your immediate needs.”

Carefully look to the future

If you feel confident about your daily plan, you may be able to broaden your outlook to see if you have enough information to make some future decisions. Look toward something a day or two from now, such as scheduling a call with a friend or going for a long walk over the weekend.

Even during uncertain times, remember that things will eventually calm down. When that happens, you can then start to plan further down the road. For the time being, it’s ok to recognize that it may be best to take it one day at a time.

Make time for a check-in

Even with the best intentions and a careful method, you may feel the need to pace yourself. “If you notice that your mind is starting to spin out, you can start by checking in with yourself,” says Brewer.

If panic sets in, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do I have enough information to make a decision right now?
  • Is worrying helping me make decisions, or is it just making me more anxious?

If you don’t know enough to make a decision, remember that what we know right now might not be true tomorrow. You may be able to plan further ahead at another time. If you are feeling anxious about an uncertain future, take a minute to breathe. If you have a few minutes to spare, consider sitting down to meditate. Doing so can help you feel more grounded in the present moment.

When all else fails, keep your plans simple—whether that’s thinking about the next day, hour or even minute. “Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is all we can do,” reminds Brewer. “You can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”

If you are having trouble controlling your anxiety during these uncertain times, visit Sharecare’s DrJud.com website for more resources. For an immersive, evidence-based mindfulness experience, sign up for Dr. Jud’s Unwinding Anxiety program.

Article sources open article sources

Dr. Jud. “How to manage uncertainty and anxiety (Coronavirus Anxiety Daily Update #4).” YouTube.com. March 19, 2020.
“The Great Unknown: 10 Tips for Dealing With the Stress of Uncertainty.” APA.org
“Mindfulness.” NHS.uk.

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