Why we dither, flip-flop and freeze during times of uncertainty

“Intolerance of Uncertainty” is a psychological term that describes how well we manage to cope with unclear outcomes.

When faced with the difficult mix of unpredictability, lack of information, and the unknowable, that together form uncertainty, we struggle more than usual.

During this pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have increased, and we know that intolerance of uncertainty is something that is felt more acutely by people who are already struggling with anxiety, depression, and life issues.

What does “intolerance of uncertainty” look like?

  1. We avoid whatever is uncertain.

There has been an increase in people numbing and soothing themselves with substances and experiences. Bingeing on food, alcohol, and Netflix have all increased this year.

2. We ‘over-engage’ with the pandemic.

We have all gone beyond normal efforts to find out as much as we can about Corona virus in the hope that more information will lead to better decisions. Sometimes it has, but at other times, it has left us overwhelmed and confused.

3. We are impulsive.

To eliminate uncertainty and the distress it causes, we do things without planning or thinking of the consequences. So, some people have bought new cars on impulse during lockdown in an effort to replace fear with excitement.

4. We dither and flip-flop.

No, these are not dance moves! When we cannot choose between options because we lack information about a clear winner, we prevaricate and freeze our decision making. This is called ‘behavioural paralysis’.

A simple example comes from lockdown 1 when people could only exercise outdoors once a day. People flipped between going for a walk now, going later, doing some work, watching t.v. Unable to decide the best thing to do when, they did nothing.

What can help?

The pandemic and the resulting anxiety are not going away for some time. We have to live with temporal uncertainty (we don’t know when it will be over).

We have to live with experiential uncertainty (we cannot know what is consistently safe to do with whom, where or for how long). One day it is safe to visit an elderly relative, the next we read about increasing transmission rates, so we don’t visit, even though our risk of transmission may have stayed the same.

The uncertainty itself is uncertain!

Here are some simple suggestions that are known to be helpful.

  1. Stay hopeful. We won’t have to live with this level of uncertainty indefinitely.

2. Stay in control of your life. Control what you have control over and forget about the rest. Realistically assess the risk Covid poses to you and take sensible measures.

3. Boost the positives in your life- being helpful to others boosts our mood; take regular walks in nature, if possible; do things you enjoy; learn a new skill.

4. Minimise the negatives- don’t spend too much time with very anxious or doom-laden individuals. Mood is contagious too! Before you go to sleep, think of three positive things that have occurred during your day.

5. Look after your health- yoga breathing exercises are great for grounding you in the present and in your body; eat sensibly, and try not to overindulge in food and alcohol.

6. See the pandemic as an opportunity, not just a threat. Human evolution has occurred because we have found ways to cope with the unexpected and the scary.

7. Embrace growth. What resources do you possess to help yourself? What changes can you make to increase your flexibility and so insure yourself against future uncertainty?

This pandemic is a tough lesson in growth for us all. We are learning new ways to live, work and be. Change can be painful and scary. Being slow and kind with ourselves and others can ease the transition.

Ultimately, knowing that you can resource yourself, that you can adapt and innovate, and that you can learn and change, are certain tools for working with uncertainty.

Thanks to lockdown, we’re dancing again!

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