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February 7, 2023

How Damaging Is Long-Term Uncertainty? – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie

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© GettyImages/mr_morton

I'm so comfortable with certain types of uncertainty that I barely recognize them as "uncertainty." For instance, it never fazes me when I get lost. I know I will find the way and reach my destination before I fall off the end of the earth. I also look at it as unintentionally exploring unknown places.

My husband, on the other hand, HATES (yes, in capital letters) getting lost. He finds the uncertainty of not knowing exactly where he is distressing. And the two of us in one car when we get lost? Picture one very cool cucumber and one red hot chili pepper having an interesting "discussion" about direction. Less said, less mended, so I'll stop there.

Yolande Conradie
Mind Tools coach and author, Yolande Conradie

I'm less comfortable with other types of uncertainty. In fact, any kind of relationship or financial uncertainty makes me feel like a steamroller is running me over and flattening me into the ground, face down. (You can probably tell that's not a great starting position if you intend to fight or flee.)

It wasn't always like that. In the period during and after my divorce, I experienced much uncertainty about everything in my life: relationships (even friendships), finances, where I would live, and how I'd get through the day without dying of heartache.

It almost feels as if I've used up most of my coping-with-uncertainty reserves for life. As soon as I sense relationship or financial uncertainty on my radar, all the warning lights and alarms in my head and heart start beeping, clanging and flashing: it must be avoided at all costs!

Life doesn't work like that, of course. We don't get to choose what we want to feel uncertain about, because we don't control the whole world and everything in it. None of us chose COVID, right? Yet we had to cope with and live through all the uncertainty that it unceremoniously dumped in our laps.

Looking back, many of us can't say exactly how we coped from day to day, just as I can't tell you how I got through my divorce – yet, we did. It changed who and how we are, though. It might have left some of us oversensitized to certain types of change, emotionally dysregulated, jumpy in certain situations, or hesitant to take any kind of risk.

But it also taught us how to move forward one step at a time – that we must dig deep to find courage when we feel we have none left, and how to hold space for others experiencing the trauma of major uncertainty.

"To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and feel at home with the unknown."

― Yuval Noah Harari, "21 Lessons for the 21st Century"

A Tidal Wave of Uncertainty

Mind Tools coach Mike Barzacchini says, in the past, uncertainty like an unexpected job loss, a health crisis, or a tragic accident hit him like a tidal wave. "When the wave hits, I may react, often out of self-preservation, but eventually, I have to move from reaction to action, even if that action starts as thoughtful contemplation. I've learned that I don't have to be one hundred percent certain, but if I can begin to take even the smallest steps to understand, solve, and move forward, uncertainty begins to ebb. When uncertainty hits, even the smallest piece of driftwood may allow an opportunity to find a handhold and ultimately a flow to a more certain, stable state."

The Trauma of Long-Term Uncertainty

This is how Mind Tools coach Sonia Harris describes what long-term uncertainty did to her: "Benjamin Franklin once said, 'In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.' I agree. Years ago, as a second-semester college freshman, the uncertainty (my family and) I faced after involuntary homelessness was stressful.

"The uncertainty I experienced caused anxiety and worrying. Would I miss an important piece of mail? Would anyone steal our property while we were sleeping in a public space? Would anyone break into our vehicle when we were away at work or school? Do I have enough essentials until we make another trip to the storage unit?

"When I think back to that year, the trauma has blocked some of my memory: some things I remember vividly while others are a blur or blank. The trauma still lingers in other ways, and I notice it when deciding to discard old things. I recognize that it takes me a little longer than the simplified, popular 'keep, discard or donate' process."

To Operate or Not to Operate?

Mind Tools coach Sarah Harvey has been waiting for a minor operation which has been booked and canceled three times over a five-month period, all for reasons outside her control.

"Although a minor procedure, the recovery time requires two weeks of recuperation, including minimal standing and walking, and no driving. Inevitably this restricts my life and work for two weeks post-op.

"During those five months, my frustration built and built, but not about the canceled procedure. It was the uncertainty caused by the inability to plan that was the issue. Not knowing when I may need to clear my diary for two weeks became surprisingly disconcerting. It was unsettling. Making decisions became more challenging. It was always there in the back of my mind. I constantly worried about letting people down. In the end, I decided not to go ahead with the operation."

Dealing With Uncertainty, One Baby Step at a Time

Mind Tools coach Zala Bricelj says that the words "uncertainty" and "life-changing" go together.

"I have recently become a mother. The road to motherhood was long and winding, with many unexpected turns. When we had almost given up, this little rainbow child came into our life: our little bundle of joy, happiness and excitement. And with her came many feelings of uncertainty.

"They say that 'with love comes big responsibility.' I can attest to it. As much as I care deeply for my child and feel like there's a piece of my heart walking around the world now, I also feel a great deal of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. There's the anxiety that I think every mom feels about their child: are they going to be safe, healthy, and have a good life? But, at times, I feel a gut-wrenching and overpowering uncertainty related to knowing there's a human being that relies on us and needs our protection, guidance, love, and support, no matter what happens.

"I slowly and mindfully started accepting that I'd be living with long-term uncertainty from the moment I looked into my daughter's eyes. I'm prepared to accept and embrace all the emotions this uncertainty brings, and take one 'baby step' at a time. It means that I must consciously be in touch with my emotions, calm the rollercoaster in my head and heart, lean on my partner and loved ones for support, and often gently whisper to myself: 'You are exactly what this kiddo needs!'"

How Damaging Is Long-Term Uncertainty?

Uncertainty will always be with us to some degree. Author Mandy Hale said, "Life isn't meant to be lived perfectly… but merely to be lived. Boldly, wildly, beautifully, uncertainly, imperfectly, magically lived." What a great reminder that I shouldn't strive to live life perfectly, because that's impossible. Rather, I should strive to live my best, beautiful, uncertain life!

During Friday's #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed the effects of long-term uncertainty and how we can learn to reframe how we think about it. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:

Q1. What do you think/feel when you hear the word "uncertainty"?

@JKatzaman Uncertainty is more like business as usual in today's world. It's an uneasy adventure.

@PG_pmp Uncertainty brings some sort of fear in mind... however keep acquiring skills... to prepare to face any situation.

Q2. What's the difference between indecision and uncertainty?

@_GT_Coaching In this example, indecision could be my reaction to uncertainty.

@NWarind Indecision is multiple choices, whereas uncertainty is a lack of confidence.

@Yolande_MT Uncertainty is not knowing something, as well as knowing that you don't know. You also know that you have no way of knowing now because you have to rely on a source that is unknowable (future) or unreliable (a person). Indecision is an inability to decide what to do now or what to do next, and which course of action to take. Uncertainty could be a factor in a person's indecision.

Q3. What are possible emotional and mental effects of prolonged uncertainty?

@SarahH_MT Possible emotional and mental effects of prolonged uncertainty include feeling stressed out, mood swings or problems sleeping. If it goes on this can lead to anxiety, depression and panic attacks.

@MarkC_Avgi Prolonged uncertainty usually impacts self-confidence, and often results in over-analysis during a decision-making process, which can weigh heavily on emotions & our state of mind.

Q4. What are some examples of the physical impact such uncertainty can have?

@J_Stephens_CPA The mental and emotional stress impact the physical – loss of sleep, digestive stress. Uncertainty impacts the whole person.

@Dwyka_Consult My skin felt as if I had sunburn – except that I didn't. It lasted for years and eventually faded. However, when I start feeling uncertain about something important, my burning skin returns.

@ColfaxInsurance (Alyx) Uncertainty about food availability can lead to unhealthy eating habits; uncertainty about job or income stability can lead to poor sleep and prolonged stress – which in itself leads to a myriad of other health issues.

Q5. Have you experienced prolonged uncertainty? What was the situation?

@Midgie_MT In addition to COVID-19, I also experienced prolonged uncertainty when I first moved from Canada to the U.K. Not knowing how long I would stay, where I would live, or what I would do... kinda scary. Also, when I was 'between jobs' and job hunting.

@MikeB_MT Waiting for an employer to announce a reorg' that I knew was coming. How would it affect my job? When would it be announced? Often when decisions aren't fully in our control, uncertainty thrives.

Q6. How have you coaxed/guided yourself through uncertainty?

@southbaysome Prayer. Good friends. Meditation. Trust in the universe. A lot of self-reflection.

@SarahH_MT I've learned to guide myself through uncertainty by focusing on what I can control and trying to let go of what I can't. I find it useful to plan some immediate actions I can take to move forward despite the uncertainty and to be clear about what my options are.

Q7. How has living through uncertainty changed you?

@ThiamMeka2Gogue I have learned to optimize uncertainty towards my goals as it provides the space for me to look for different opportunities, new options and overlooked solutions.

@JKatzaman Uncertainty might make you less risk averse. What's a little more risk among friends?

Q8. How does uncertainty affect how we handle risk?

@SoniaH_MT When we cannot fully assess a situation, we may be more guarded or averse with our feelings, finances, contributions, or investments. On the other hand, some people get a rush from not knowing what the outcome will be.

@ColfaxInsurance (Alyx) It can make us more hesitant to take on risk. It can also make us more thorough; I tend to go into a 'risky' situation having done a lot of research to back up my decision.

Q9. What are your best tips to help others cope with uncertainty?

@ZalaB_MT I think you need to find what works for you best. The most important for me is identifying what you can(not) control and start from there. What can I do to change things or seek a bit more certainty to avoid the total overwhelm.

@llake Do not say "everything will be fine" or "just ____". Neither are helpful. Be a friend and buy them a cup of coffee. It's not our job to fix it, but it is in our humanness to offer loving support. Sometimes [it's] as simple as a cup of coffee and a listening ear.

Q10. It can be hard to actively embrace uncertainty, but what might happen if we did?

@MikeB_MT First I thought of a t-shirt that reads "hug uncertainty, it may hug you back." But seriously, folks... If I can balance my uncertainty and understand that a certain level will always exist, I may be able to direct my energy which has been anxiety, confusion, stress... to more positive behaviors that help me cope with and solve my uncertainty.

@MarkC_Avgi Many look at challenges with uncertainty because they view those challenges as obstacles, rather than opportunities to learn and expand our knowledge & abilities. We can only expand ourselves if we try. Benefit from success & learn from our failures or mistakes.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.

Long-Term Uncertainty Resources

To help you learn more about dealing with long-term uncertainty, we've compiled a list of resources for you to browse. (Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full.)

Decision Making Under Uncertainty

What Are the HALT Risk States?

Uncertainty, With Jonathan Fields

Coping Under Pressure

6 Ways to Support Employees' Mental Health Video

The Uncertainty Factor

Coping With Uncertainty Video

Understanding Your Locus of Control

Managing Project Uncertainty

Career Setbacks

Managing in a VUCA World

Asking for Help

Coming Up: Journaling

We all deal with major life events in different ways. Journaling about your experiences, emotions and thoughts is one way to do so. Next time on #MTtalk we're going to discuss journaling and daily writing practices. In our Twitter poll this week we'd like to know which of our statements about journaling or a daily writing practice best describes you.

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