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Uncertainty: What to Do When We Don’t Know

Uncertainty: What to Do When We Don’t Know
Dana L. Collins, PhD

 

We’re facing a lot of unknowns and unanswered questions, but one thing we do know is that we don't know what the future holds. There are reasons why uncertainty is so hard to be with, but changing how we think about and react to it can make a big difference.

“I don't know what to do about this. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” In the last couple of years or so, I've been saying this more and more, to myself and others. Most recently, I said it to my therapist (yes, I’m a psychologist who sees a therapist, weekly. And It helps me immensely). A few days before, we'd learned about the Supreme Court’s leaked plans to overturn Roe. vs. Wade, and that a few hours north of us in Buffalo NY, a white shooter had shot 13 people, mostly black, killing 10.*

It seemed as if the world was becoming more unsafe than ever before, and I wanted to and felt responsible for figuring out how to respond, and ultimately put an end to, all the problems. I wanted to know that things would be “ok”, and I wished I knew how to make them ok. But I felt so overwhelmed I wasn’t even sure where to start, and I was even less sure about what was going to happen next, with any of it. I was bracing for more disaster and felt hopeless and afraid.


Uncertainty reminds us that there are a lot of things we don’t have control over.

Most of us dislike not knowing, or uncertainty. Uncertainty reminds us that there are a lot of things we don’t have control over. This can lead to us feeling powerless and fearful, and worry about the future is what’s at the root of anxiety and anxiety disorders. But there's something else that makes uncertainty hard to sit with, what psychologists call the negativity bias. If we don’t know what's going to happen, there’s a possibility that something bad will happen. Because of the negativity bias, when we're thinking about the future, we tend to imagine that something bad is more likely to happen than something good or neutral happening.

This bias could definitely be a result of our personal lived experiences and histories (as a Black woman, I’ve had plenty of experiences with America failing me, and based on my experience, I expected/ feared more failure and devolving of society). As a general rule, we as humans, regardless of who we are and what we’ve been through, are subject to this, owing to human evolution and the survival brain. When our stone-age ancestors still walked the Earth, they were surrounded by danger. Routinely and constantly. Illnesses they didn't understand, huge bugs and spiders, saber-tooth tigers. It was safer to assume that a rustle in the bush was a hungry hungry hippo coming to eat our baby than it was to assume that it was just a gentle caress of the wind. Life was dangerous and being able to anticipate and react to danger kept us safe. No, it kept us alive. So, our bodies and brains adapted and became extra sensitive to the mere possibility of harm. Because uncertainty meant danger, and having a plan or being able to quickly react meant a better chance of survival.

But there's more. Because, from an evolutionary perspective, relying on the survival brain and over-estimating the chance of danger kept us safe, parts of our brains also evolved to scan for and be more sensitive to bad news than neutral or good news. It's actually easier for us to commit negative experiences to memory than positive or neutral ones, and then recall those negative memories later on, even long after they're over.

I’ll repeat: it's easier for us to commit negative experiences to memory than positive or neutral ones. As neuropsychologist, meditation teacher, and author of The Buddha Brain (excellent book, I highly recommend it) Dr. Rick Hanson puts it- “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones”. To store positive events in our long-term memory, we have to hold them in conscious awareness. We have to put time and mental energy into focusing on them so that it’s easier for our bodies and brains to store them.

The challenge with this and some of the other adaptations we've made to keep ourselves safe is that while they work great in the settings they're developed, in other settings, they can cause problems. Let's take the example of the rustle in the bush. Because uncertainty equals danger, and you've had plenty of run-ins with wild animals, your survival brain quickly decides that the rustle is a wild beast that's come to kill your family. To defend yourselves, you grab your ax and charge into the forest. Mid-charge, you see that the rustle was actually just your neighbor making their way through the forest to offer you freshly-foraged berries. Our adaptations can be effective when real danger is present, but because they came about millions of years ago, they don't always fit our modern lives.

Now, back to me and our present times. It’s true that a lot of us face very real and frequent dangers, especially those of us with marginalized identities. But for the most part, our lives aren’t under a lot of the kinds of constant threats that our ancestors were. We don’t worry about being eaten, but we do continue to imagine that bad things are coming when we’re feeling uncertain. Our minds continue to create “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios to prepare us to ward off threats and disappointments.

This is what I was doing in my therapy session. I imagined the country collapsing and total chaos erupting, losing all order so that we'd all have to take to the woods and fend for ourselves. I also felt immense pressure to figure out what I could do to keep it all from happening, to find an answer, immediately. I felt overwhelmed, and defeated. In reality, I was at home, sitting at my desk, looking into my computer screen as I spoke with my therapist. I wasn't in any immediate danger and didn't need to act right then and there, but my mind had made up a story about society coming to an end soon. Yes, there was the possibility of more danger, but the truth was that I couldn’t be sure of what was going to happen, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. The only thing I could be sure of at that moment is that I was safe.



How can we face uncertainty in ways that are neither reactive nor ways that immobilize us with fear?

Uncertainty is a fact of life now and will always be in some version. Yes, we can have good indication of what the future might hold, but the only thing we really know is what's happening now, and the only time we can act is now. That doesn't mean that we can't and shouldn't prepare ourselves, or that we should surrender ourselves to passivity and inaction, it means we may need a different approach. So, how can we face uncertainty? How can we face it in ways that are neither reactive nor ways that immobilize us with fear? Ways that enable us to make wiser, more rational choices?

It's hard to undo our human conditioning, but we can at least be aware of it and what it brings up for us. When we notice ourselves feeling anxious or fearful about the future, using a little mindful awareness to tune into our present-moment experience can make a big difference.

*It can help to start by taking a few deep breaths and noticing our inhalations and exhalations. Next, we can get curious about what’s happening inside us. What’s coming up?

*It’s natural to have a lot of thoughts since it might feel comforting to try to find immediate solutions. But each time you notice a thought, rather than getting carried away in one of the stories the mind might be telling, let it go. Notice and let go, coming back to the in-the-moment experiences.

*What feelings, bodily sensations, and images are we experiencing in the moment? If you find yourself distracted or caught up in the mind, it may be helpful to focus on just one aspect of your experience, maybe the breath, ambient sounds, or bodily sensations. Anchoring in one of these not only helps us to stay present, but it can also help us feel more grounded in the here and now.

*Focusing on the now in this way not only helps to regulate and calm us, but also lessens the chances that we’ll act impulsively and according to our survival brain. From here, we can develop the clarity we need to decide on the next best steps.


"Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.”
— Eckhart Tolle

 

*I want to acknowledge that days after I wrote this tragedy, a number of other crises have occurred, many involving gun violence, including the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.



I'm a licensed psychologist, mindfulness meditation teacher, activist, and educator based in Brooklyn and originally from Oakland. As a Black woman, I’ve made it my mission to destigmatize and demystify mental health for BIPOC individuals and communities, and to make wellness practices accessible to us. I spread awareness and promote mental health through writing, teaching, doing therapy, facilitating mindfulness and wellness workshops, community outreach, and advocacy. I find balance by trying new foods, hiking and camping, meditating, reading, and playing video games and spending time with my partner Eddie.
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