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Dealing with Uncertainty

While some people thrive on not knowing what the future holds, others find uncertainty extremely stressful.

Many of us feel safe when we control our environments, and not having certainty about the future can make us feel anxious, stressed, and out of control.

  • What is uncertainty?

    Uncertainty is the lack of knowledge or understanding that comes with not knowing what the future holds. Even before COVID-19 changed the way we live, economists were arguing that we now live in a global age of hyper-uncertainty at individual, communal and societal levels.

    When things in our life don’t go to plan, we may start to feel uncertain about the future. In addition, climate change, natural disasters, pandemics, global conflicts, and shortages can all contribute to widespread uncertainty.

  • Common reactions to uncertainty

    Uncertainty affects everyone in different ways, though it is common to feel stressed about what you cannot control. According to the World Health Organization, fear, worry and stress are normal responses “at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown.”

    Some people may feel only mildly anxious about not knowing what the future holds, while others can feel completely overwhelmed and unable to cope with daily life.

    There is a link between uncertainty and mental health outcomes such as stress and anxiety. In late 2021, researchers from the King’s College in London reported a positive association between higher levels of uncertainty and mental health problems. Uncertainty has been linked to worsened mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, distress, and stress. [1]

    Feeling stressed or anxious can cause a range of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms. You may feel overwhelmed and be unable to stop worrying or sleep properly. Stress can exacerbate feelings of anger or irritability. You may also struggle to concentrate or connect with family and friends.

    Physical symptoms related to stress can include:

    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Fast breathing
    • Upset stomach
    • Tense muscles
    • Sweating
    • Headaches

    [1] Alessandro Massazza, Hanna Kienzler, Suzan Al-Mitwalli, Nancy Tamimi & Rita Giacaman (2022) The association between uncertainty and mental health: a scoping review of the quantitative literature, Journal of Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/09638237.2021.2022620

  • How to cope with uncertainty

    To cope with uncertainty effectively, focus on managing your stress response. Here are a few tips to get you started.

    Accept the uncertainty

    Accepting that there are always going to be some factors outside of your control is the first step toward coping with uncertainty.

    Facing an uncertain future is part of modern living, and it affects everyone. Once you accept that there will always be some level of uncertainty in your life, you can bring your focus back to the present (and what you can control) instead of the future (and what you can’t control).

    Avoid planning for all scenarios

    Do you try to cope with uncertainty by thinking about all the possible scenarios the future holds? While planning for worst-case scenarios gives you a sense of control, it can also make stress and anxiety worse as you become too focused on the future and what you can’t control.

    Focus on what you can control

    Take a step back and focus on what you can control. While you may not be able to influence the actions of others, you can focus on your own day-to-day routine, family, and work.

    Be grateful

    Appreciate the good things that are in your life now and take time to think about everything that you are grateful for. Consider keeping a gratitude journal and taking a few moments in the morning to write down what makes you happy.

    Practising gratitude can make coping with uncertainty less stressful, as you are focusing your attention on the positives and away from the negatives.

    Reduce stressors

    If you’re already feeling worried about the future, additional stressors can worsen your emotional state. Take the time to reduce other forms of stress in your life: reassess your commitments, cut out anything that is not essential, and organise your routine.

    In addition, living a healthy lifestyle will help you feel more relaxed and present:

    • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water
    • Exercise regularly
    • Avoid consuming too much alcohol
    • Find time to relax
    • Connect with friends and family
    • Get a good night’s sleep
    • Try meditation, mindfulness or relaxation exercises.
  • The final word

    Remember to be kind to yourself, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about uncertainty. But if you’re struggling to cope with uncertainty or are experiencing prolonged periods of stress or anxiety, seek professional help. Reach out to your GP, counsellor or other health professional.

    If you’re concerned about your stress levels, talk to your GP or health professional. You can also call our Mind Health counsellors on 1300 029 131 or click the floating chat button on the right.

    If is an emergency, please call 000.