Dealing with uncertainty

As humans, we are naturally drawn towards organisation – we have a daily routine that may involve work, social interaction, chores, hobbies, and within each of those, we have our preferred way of completing them. When this routine gets disrupted, we tend to feel stress and anxiety. We need to work on how we can manage those changes in routine (i.e. working from home) to better manage that stress or work towards a new routine. When these routine changes have an unknown timeframe, this can lead to chronic uncertainty further heightening our stress and anxiety levels.

During uncertainty, our brains tend to fall into maladaptive patterns in a part of our brain called the limbic system – this system is automatic and saves a lot of processing power (like remembering to brush your teeth or comb your hair). In situations where we are uncertain though, there is no pre-written pattern in our limbic system which means we often experience feelings of stress and anxiety rather than stability. It is therefore very important we try to remain as much in our cortex (thinking / rational brain) as possible while creating an automatic process in the limbic system to adaptively manage this unprecedented situation. Consider it like you are making a pathway in your brain that is neat and tidy where one has not existed before.

To assist your brain to do this, you can do the following:


Set realistic expectations

We do not know how long this current environment is going to last which is one of the hardest things to manage with regards to uncertainty. Do we need to manage this stress for two weeks or two months? The answer is a resounding unknown though we can safely imagine this lasting for a bit longer than two weeks. Holding this in your mind over hoping for everything to be normal again in two weeks helps you avoid activating unhelpful thinking patterns which could increase your stress and anxiety levels.


Manage what you can

In an environment where you have so little control over what your employer, the government and everyone else does, consciously managing what you can is important. You can setup a work from home environment, engage in home schooling the kids, communicate with friends and family via electronic mediums, etc. Unsure what to do at home for an extended period? Check the internet!

There are apps to play boardgames online with friends, webinars to join, podcasts to listen to or fun games you can play at home with the family. Exercising what we call your circles of influence can move your experience from a circle of concern (where you feel out of control, uncertain and anxious) to your circle of influence (where you feel in control, less anxious and better adapted to manage the situation around you). Reminding yourself the extent of your powers and what you can do to influence the situation will minimise your experience in the circle of concern, thereby minimising a sense of feeling helpless, out of control and uncertain. Using the circle of influence can also allow you to reflect on how you have managed a situation and gently reminding yourself what you could do better next time.


Consumption of media

It is important to stay informed. It is very important to stay accurately informed so be mindful of where your media consumption is coming from. Knowing what sources of media you are consuming (i.e. governmental health departments, information from well regarded doctors, etc. compared to social media) and also setting some boundaries around how and when you consume it (i.e. 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day) will provide you a level of control and minimise the experiences of anxiety the combination of media and uncertainty can bring.


Produce the right neurotransmitters

It is important when spending time in your cortex and not your limbic system to ensure you are generating the right neurotransmitters (working the brain is hard!). By engaging in pleasurable activities, eating healthily, getting some sunlight (safely – open windows or parks nearby homes), exercising (body weight exercises in the home), listening to music and remaining social will all play a pivotal role in ensuring your brain can forge new pathways in the limbic system to ensure adaptive behaviours during these unprecedented times.


Resources and support

We have all had to adjust how we live our lives in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and as a result we may find ourselves requiring some additional support to keep ourselves safe and mentally fit. If you or someone you know isn’t travelling so well, link in with one or more of the support services and resources outlined in the attached guide from Colonial First State. Seeking support early can often stop small problems from becoming bigger.

Resources and support – contact list


Source – Colonial First State