No one knows how this ends. The uncertainty may be as unsettling as the virus itself.
People want to know when they can touch again and whisper closely. When they can walk not on quiet trails but through the hum of a crowd – bumping shoulders, inhaling perfume, eavesdropping. They wonder when they’ll be able to send their children to school. They want to know when solitude will become a choice again.
“We are all anxious. We are all tired. We are all fatigued, it’s been all bad news for a long time,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday. “Our whole lifestyle has been disrupted. Everybody wants to know one thing: when is it over? Nobody knows.”
Psychologists say uncertainty is unsettling because human nature demands predictability. People count on it in daily life, in the structures around them, to function. When they don’t have it, they can become uncomfortable and insecure.
“The things we rely on for stability in our lives are all under siege,” said Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in California and author of “The Stress-Proof Brain.”
“Our brains are designed to predict what’s going to happen next and to try to prepare for it. In this case, the response isn’t that clear.”
Americans know they are facing a threat, but they aren’t sure exactly how it may impact the economy, the country’s politics or society at large. Public health officials can’t say when social distancing or quarantines will end. Some people don’t know if they’ll have a job to go back to or a business to reopen. No matter how often someone washes their hands they can’t ensure they won’t get sick.
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Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, projected millions of Americans will contract COVID-19 and estimates released by the White House on Tuesday project as many as 240,000 Americans may die. If people continue to hunker down, the number of projected deaths fall between 100,000 and 240,000. But health officials caution the models of infection rate vary widely. They, too, are uncertain.
Adding to the disquiet: people can’t use history to ease their fears. Brains learn from past experiences to develop responses to stay safe and to avoid pain. If someone was laid off in the past but got through it, they would know job loss doesn’t have to be catastrophic. If someone got the flu but recovered, they’d know getting it again wouldn’t mean certain death.
But coronavirus is novel.
“Sometimes we can calm ourselves down by thinking about our history of successfully coping with something similar,” Greenberg said. “There’s nothing like that here. That’s even more unsettling.”
The illusion of certainty
People never know what’s going to happen next. But because they have routines, they make predictions about what is probable and this provides comfort. The pandemic has decimated that.
“We need some certainty to feel fundamentally safe in our lives,” said Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and interfaith minister. “And yet when an illness comes up or an accident happens, we’re momentarily cast into this reality of, ‘Oh my God, really all we have is this moment.’ That’s actually the only thing that is certain.”
These “oh-my-god” moments are clarifying, she said. They show people no matter how hard they try to protect themselves from the unpredictability and impermanence of life, all they are assured of is now. Accepting that is overwhelming.
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Worrying is unproductive – most of the time
Many people are worrying – about their health, their lives, their loved ones. Worry, experts say, is meant to protect people, but it’s usefulness can be limited and too much can become toxic.
“Worrying that you’re going to get the virus might keep you at home and washing your hands and taking the right precautions,” Greenberg said. “But a lot of times you just get stuck in a ruminative cycle.”
Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, says research shows tolerance of uncertainty happens on a spectrum. Some people see what’s happening with the pandemic and wash their hands more rigorously. Others invent nightmares.
People can worry less by focusing on the present, she says. If someone feels compelled to worry, she recommends to set aside 30 minutes a day for it. When the timer ends, move on.
“It’s totally normal to be struggling amid fear of the unknown, but we don’t have to get stuck there,” Wright said. “We need to let go of thoughts that are tripping us up like ‘this is unfair,’ or ‘why is this happening?’ Those are all ways that we maintain our fear and fight our reality.”
Learning to tolerate discomfort
Dealing with uncertainty takes training. Experts say practicing mindfulness can help. When a person focuses on what they’re seeing, hearing, feeling or smelling in a given moment, the brain can’t worry at the same time. People can avoid catastrophizing by remembering the things they’re doing to keep themselves safe. Statistically, there’s a chance of dying, but it’s still not the most likely scenario.
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Collier says it’s also important to have self-compassion. These disruptions cannot be underestimated.
“This is outside our comfort zone. All the things that we rely on to know who we are, all our roles, all the ways we structure our day have been completely removed,” she said. “We’re being asked to come back to ourselves, to go inside. This is really, really hard for people. So be super gentle with yourself about however you’re managing it.”
Change, Collier notes, often happens on its own accord. This moment, for all its suffering, is an opportunity to reflect – to ask fundamental questions about our lives, our values, even the nature of our realities.
While there is no certainty about the future, this uncertain time offers people the space to grow more certain about who they are and who they want to be. To watch what crumbles. To see what remains.
“It’s an opportunity to really take this moment as if it matters. How do I want to show up for it? It becomes the only important question,” she said. “Adversity is the opportunity for us to change fundamentally. And if you use it in that way, it’s so precious.”
Alia E. Dastagir is a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter fellowship for mental health journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @alia_e
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