Humans are hardwired to crave certainty. Psychologists argue that it is an innate need that is programmed into our biology and amplified by evolution. If we understand our environment, we can predict with some accuracy what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty theoretically enables us to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.
The need for security is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is about testing and formulating theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children adopting a theory of the mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries exceed. Even our language reflects this. Think how many words we have about the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.
At its core The need for security reflects the desire to control and dominate the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether it’s what we eat for breakfast, whether we choose the freeway or the streets on our way, or who to marry. Any decision, from mundane to life changing, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of a favorable outcome. We can only do this if our world is predictable, at least to some extent.
Consequences of the uncertainty
In ambiguous or uncertain circumstances, regions of the brain associated with fear and alertness light up. Subjectively, uncertainty can lead to freezes or shutdowns, excessive negative emotions, worries about the future, or the worsening of certain mental illnesses. If it persists, insecurity becomes a form of chronic stress. I don’t have to tell you how this undermines every dimension of health. It also soaks up valuable mental resources as our brain tries to remove the uncertainty.
This is bad news at a time like this. The usual advice applies: practice self-care, gratitude, mindfulness, radical acceptance. But coping with such times is not a matter of self-care, not the way the term is tossed around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of bubble baths, chamomile tea, and gentle movements. When it comes to self-care, these are the basics, the bare minimum of kindness that we should all show ourselves on a regular basis. They are important, but when our sense of security and control has been turned upside down, it takes more than the basics.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings …
Insecurity and a lack of control have real consequences for our mental and physical health. Suppressing emotions, denying the challenge, or blaming yourself only exacerbates the problem.
Especially now, when everyone is in the same boat, it is tempting to downplay our feelings. There is no need to compare your suffering with that of others. There is always someone worse off than you, but that doesn’t mean your feelings are valid. On the contrary, when you are struggling, your feelings are absolutely valid. Your basic needs are not being met and you may face legitimate fears about safety and wellbeing. Many of us experience some form of ambiguous loss as our ability to enter into a “normal life” has been restricted.
… But avoid a spiral
It is one thing to process how difficult the current situation is. It is another thing to give in to catastrophic thinking.
This is where self-compassion, gratitude, and acceptance practices can help. Together, they allow you to see your suffering (to use the language of self-compassion) while maintaining some perspective. You can also work on both thinking and thinking, which is a coping strategy from the ambiguous loss literature. Both and statements recognize that multiple, even seemingly contradicting, things can be true at the same time. Examples could be: “I can feel sadness and despair and also hope” or “I am less productive than before and continue to make progress”. (More on this shortly.)
When feelings feel too big or too harsh, it is helpful to work them through with someone else. Notice, Therapy is self-care. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it is easier than ever to access mental health services from the privacy of your home.
Melt stress with Adaptogenic Calm
Lean on other people …
Resilience is the ability to withstand adversity, trauma or stress – to bend over but not to break, and ideally to adapt better to difficult situations in the future. A basic source of resilience is having others to rely on, people who will share your burden and help you through difficult times.
This does not mean that you need to have a large circle of close friends and acquaintances. Rather, it means cultivating meaningful and supportive relationships with individuals and / or groups that offer similar benefits. This could be religious affiliations, volunteer organizations, support groups, or even your workplace.
Of course, this only works if you’re ready to get in touch. It can be as simple as showing up for a Zoom happy hour with friends, but don’t be afraid to ask for more either. In my experience, people want to help. They’re just waiting to be asked.
… and find ways to be there for others
The downside is that others can lean on you. When things get out of hand, being there for others also helps you by creating positive energy and goals.
There are many ways to be prosocial. Pick up the handset and give someone a call. Take a small task off a colleague’s plate or write them a thank you letter. Donate money or time to an organization that is committed to positive change. Write a letter to your congressman. Send a care package. Giving can actually generate energy as long as you take care to balance it with filling your own bucket.
Expect less of yourself …
How many mind pieces have been written in the past six months to allow us to be less productive than normal? I don’t think enough because I see a lot of people continue to beat themselves up for having trouble at work, being less strict with their exercise routines, and making their homes messy.
We clearly underestimate how much uncertainty in and of itself strains our intellectual resources. While we may be past the initial shock of the pandemic – though 2020 hits keep coming – the uncertainty and lack of control remain. Give you grace. Allow yourself to rest. Re-evaluate your standards for “success”. Say no where you can.
… But carry on
It’s all well and good to say that you should lower your expectations and say no to things, but what about the things you need to get done? Jobs, parenting, and caring responsibilities cannot simply be thrown aside. While I support the idea that it’s okay to do less now, sometimes you have to bend down and take a step forward (mental health crises excluded).
Action, any action, can be self-reinforcing because you are back in control. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to cross off your to-do list, take a small step towards completing a project, or exercise for five minutes. Just let the ball roll. Do NOT focus on the way in which your effort or performance is less than it used to be, but on the fact that you are still trying hard at all.
Focus on health
Emotional eating, drinking, and lying on the couch all day are perfectly understandable responses to times like this, but ultimately they add to the stress. They know how much better you will feel when you maintain a semblance of healthy eating, exercise, and sleep, or, conversely, how lousy it feels when you let it all slip. By and large, these are variables that you can control even if everything else feels like hell.
Again, I would like to encourage you to reassess your standards of success here and adapt to your current reality. It’s okay if you don’t have the resources to prepare elaborate dinners or exercise for 50 km. However, avoid the temptation to swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction. Think of each meal as a small act of productivity and each walk as an achievement.
Be in nature
Few things are naturally so healing and calming as spending time in nature. Research into the practice of forest bathing documents all the possible benefits of essentially going into the forest (or even just a park) and being mindful. A recent study found that “awe walks,” which are just outdoor walks with the intent to experience awe, cause older adults to experience more positive emotions and less stress.
Everything feels worse if you don’t go outside for even days, and that’s easy nowadays. You also get the secondary benefits of unplugging. We all need a break from the news cycle and partisan social media posts.
These strategies aren’t just about weathering the current storm. If you know your way around them, you will continue to be more resilient in the future. As banal as it may be, times of hardship can also be times of growth. Knowing that this will not change the uncomfortable realities of the current situation, nor will it protect you from future difficulties. Nor does she succumb to the temptation to hide under a weighted blanket until it’s all over.
If you’ve ever driven on ice, you know that when your car spins, you have to drive in. It’s not good to pop during breaks, turn the wheel the other way, or close your eyes and pretend your car isn’t doing a 360. Instead, keep the wheel steady and slowly regain control. The same is true here. Ultimately, it boils down to controlling the things that you can control and holding them together long enough to weather the storm.
About the author
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager at Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach and co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As the author of Marks Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the what, why, and how of a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her Masters and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and educator.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sport-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping and game nights. Follow @theusefuldish on Instagram as Lindsay tries to balance work, family and cardio exercise while maintaining a healthy balance and most importantly, enjoying life. For more information, visit lindsaytaylor.co.
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