Ambiguity, a sense of uncertainty about what’s going on or what might happen, is part of life. This blog post explores dealing with the unknowns in life and how to handle them.
When Your Environment is Unpredictable
Wow, what a week. Coronavirus or COVID-19 is all over the news and it seems that panic has set in. It is understandable to be anxious when uncertainty is all around us. Our world has been thrown off, and a new normal is here for the near future.
Human distaste for the unknown is well-grounded in experimental psychology, and research has shown that when given the choice, most of us feel calmer knowing that something bad will happen in the near future vs. it possibly happening. This phenomenon is apparent even if it causes us intense stress. Daniel Gilbert, author of the best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness writes:
“Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock”.
WAYS TO HANDLE ANXIETY
We can’t eliminate uncertainty in our lives, but we can manage our reactions to the unknown in healthy ways using one technique that the best cognitive behavioral therapists employ:
REST Technique or Radical Acceptance
When you become overwhelmed or feel anxious, your first instinct may be to act impulsively or panic. There is a healthier method – Take a REST.
- Set an intention
- Take action
Step one is to literally freeze and stop whatever you are doing. Breathe. Step away from the situation for a few seconds. Try to find a different perspective on what is happening and create a space between yourself and the impulsiveness you may feel. You can even tell yourself out loud to “Relax” or “Rest”. Slow your breathing down and calm down before you decide on another course of action.
Ask yourself what is going on – what are the facts in the situation? You don’t need to solve an ambiguous problem or discover any answers right now. You only have to evaluate what is happening to your physical, mental, and emotional self. Move on to looking at other people around you. At this point ask yourself “How do I feel?” and “Are the people around me in immediate danger?” Think right here, right now.
Set an Intention
“Step three is to set an intention to do something.” You can also treat an intention as a goal or plan. Decide what you will do, pick a distraction or self-soothing skill and ask yourself “What do I need right now?” Whatever you choose isn’t permanent, it is only for right now.
Distractors and soothers that help get you out of the uncertainty trap do not have to be expensive or time-intensive. Good examples of immediate coping skills are:
- Count all the greens or blues in your vision.
- Describe a wall or other item in detail.
- Alphabetize movies, songs, cities, etc. in your head or on a sheet of paper.
- Breathe 4 seconds in, hold for 4 seconds, and out for 6.
- Pay close attention to the living things around you
- Clean, fix something, do anything where you move your body for 5 minutes.
Lastly, take action. Mindfully move ahead slowly and meaningfully toward what you are doing. Slow and deliberate often helps us get what we want to be done faster than rushing through. Even if this is not the final solution to your problem, it is a healthy and effective way to thwart any impulsive behaviors or panic that may set in when uncertain.
Once you start getting used to using the REST technique, you will begin to identify when you are distress and can implement these steps in a few seconds. You will be ready to spring your new habit into motion and “REST” when you feel like you are in a similar situation again.
QUIZ: HOW WELL DO YOU MANAGE UNCERTAINTY?
Everyone has a different level of tolerance for ambiguity. Wondering how good you are at tolerating ambiguity? There is an easy way to find out. The Tolerance for Ambiguity scale will tell you. You will respond to a set of 16 statements about your attitudes and behaviors. Whether your score is particularly high, or lower than you expected, it is interesting to know where you stand. This information might also be helpful to a therapist who you consult to help you manage anxiety.
What can You Control??
Of course, if you follow the directions given by healthcare professionals for the coronavirus, you will feel like you have some control and they are good precautionary habits to have in our current environment.
Also, make sure you stay connected with your support system via phone and video and limit your use of social media, which is less interactive and in turn, increases our anxieties.
Matthew McKay Ph.D., Jeffrey C. Wood PsyD, et al… The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, … (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) New Harbinger Publications; Second Edition, Revised edition (October 1, 2019) Print.