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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

Medically reviewed in April 2020

Updated on February 9, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on, we’ve all been left to wonder when our lives will return to normal.

The concerns begin when we contemplate moments in our future—returning to work or school full-time or being able to freely visit friends and family again. Then there are the longer-term plans that have been canceled. It’s hard to rebook celebrations, gatherings and vacations when we are unsure of how long the pandemic will last. So, when can we expect any normalcy?

The short and frustrating answer is that we don’t know. And this ambiguity can lead to considerable worry. But what can you do to prevent your concerns from turning into anxiety or panic?

Since the early days of the pandemic, Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare, has been sharing ways to keep fears in check amid these difficult times in his Coronavirus Anxiety: Daily Updates on YouTube. Here are some of his top suggestions for how to reconcile planning for the future with the uncertainty we all face today.

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 profound way the pandemic has changed most of our 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 the pandemic 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 during the pandemic 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 these days, 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.

Just don’t expect to look too far into the future. “You’ll probably find pretty quickly that it is nearly impossible to plan for next month, because everything continues to change so rapidly,” notes Brewer. His advice: Things will calm down. When that happens, you can then start to plan further down the road. But for now, 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, in today’s times, you’re going to 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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