Coping with the uncertain

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Your brain hates uncertainty. But the good news is that you can do something to get to the other side of ambiguity (at least for a little while), writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken
As we start the wind down (or wind up!) to Christmas this year I’ve noticed there are greater levels of anxiety and generalised worrying than in previous years.

When talking with people, what I’m hearing is that this last half of 2021 has been tainted by a deeper sense of uncertainty. More than a year into a global pandemic none of us can be sure when - or if - life will go back to normal.

It seems there’s very little we can be certain about right now, and that can feed a lot of fear. The brain, after all, is designed to react negatively to uncertainty. From an evolutionary point of view, the more information we have at our disposal, the safer we feel, especially when it’s information about something that poses a threat to our wellbeing.

We’re wired to worry. It’s a survival mechanism. Although we may have developed socially over the centuries our brains haven’t evolved as fast, and we’re still wired to spot and negate danger. In many ways we need to remember where the sabre-tooth tiger is more than we need to remember where the blueberries are.

Long term uncertainty and worry, chronic stress, can have physical ramifications. Our ‘‘fight or flight’’ response gets activated. We end up with a flood of chemicals in the system.

This response is vital to our survival, it’s what saves us when we are truly in imminent danger. However, it’s designed to be a short-term response. Once the threat is gone, the brain chemicals activated return to normal.

Long-term uncertainty and worry isn’t a one-off event, as it goes on day after day and our bodies are full of the stress response chemicals, cortisone and adrenaline. Long term these have a negative effect on our wellbeing.

So, if the precariousness of our present situation has knocked you back, know that you’re definitely not alone. And the good news is that you can get better at facing the unknown.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to help you deal with uncertainty.

Don’t look too far ahead (or behind)

When you begin to worry, you can fall into a rabbit hole of unhelpful thinking, mulling the negatives over and over in your mind. We can’t problem solve in the past or predict the future. It’s not that either of those are inherently bad, sometimes it does make sense to pull apart what went wrong, or prepare for what’ll happen — but the mental load of that washing machine, around and around and around thinking can get exhausting. Worrying about things that are too far in the future to predict with any accuracy doesn’t have any cognitive benefits

Do: Keep busy in the short term

Rather than focusing on an uncertain future, bring yourself back to the present. Mindfulness practices and meditation can be helpful, as can re-directing your attention.

Try engaging in absorbing activities to keep you immersed in the here-and-now. Choose things that are not routine for you, things that require all of your concentration e.g., painting, puzzling, playing music or a challenging physical activity. Research has shown that for anxiety and panic, the most comforting things to do are things with your hands. It can have a hypnotic effect on the brain, when it’s busy thinking. It allows the brain to calm down, stop thinking about other things and focus on what you’re doing.

Don’t: Imagine all the worst-case scenarios

Often, a desire to be prepared for all possible negative outcomes can turn into ‘‘hyper-certainty’’ that things will be bad. We start to feel like presuming the worst is easier to manage than not knowing. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things that might go wrong. But it’s important to recognise catastrophising. Think about what can you do in that moment to break the pattern and start shifting your thinking. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk.

Do: Try to up your optimism

Instead, try to adopt an optimistic view of the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean assuming only good things will happen, but that whatever does happen, you’ll be OK. You can start fostering optimism by altering your self-talk. If we’re constantly saying to ourselves, ‘‘Ugh, this is awful, I don’t know how I’ll get through this, everything I know and cherish is over’’, that’s what we’ll have. Take a moment to reframe — ‘‘OK, I don’t know how this will go, but one way or another I’ll find a way through’’. Positivity builds resilience.

Don’t: Try to reason away uncertainty

If you recognise that you’re having a hard time dealing with uncertain circumstances, it’s natural to try to reason away your discomfort by seeking more and more information. Try to avoid the temptation — not only because you could wind up in a hole that makes everything worse, but also because reasoning away your fears isn’t a sustainable solution — there’ll often be a lingering ‘‘what if’’.

Do: Embrace the unknown

The best way to handle uncertainty is to try to get comfortable with it, the more you’re able to sit with it, rather than trying to fix it, the more you learn you can handle it. Get some professional help with this. We have to handle this stuff, because things don’t seem to be getting any less ambiguous. The only certainty in the universe is change. To fight it is unproductive and destructive. If there’s a big windstorm, trees that bend and flex survive. The trees that don’t bend splinter.

Things may seem out of control — and in the grand scheme of things, maybe they are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t regain command of your own life.

We can’t control politics, we can’t control the weather, we can’t control traffic. The pandemic is continuing, and we can’t control that, either ... but we can control our daily response to it and how we think. We can control what news we watch and how we use our self talk, we can control what we do and who we spend time with and they are all great places to start tackling the uncertainty.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach. For more go to




Ambiguity is often a good thing. Non directive, seeking models of practice. Sociologists call it a female quality.

Ambivalence is fear, and effectively time wasting. I wonder if the fear is of Change?

There is disquieting Argy abroad.