The pandemic is dragging on, and if it feels like your mental health is falling with it, you're not alone: stress, depression, and anxiety are all on the rise right now. One of the hardest things to come to terms with, from a mental health perspective, is the amount of uncertainty we're dealing with right now. What will the world look like a year from now, or even a few months? It's hard to say, and that's scary. It's normal to feel anxious when you lose control of so much, and it's also normal if you don't know how to deal with it; none of us have gone through something like this before. We're all a little bit lost, but that doesn't mean we can't find ways to cope with all of the unknown.
How the Pandemic Causes Uncertainty
"The prolonged uncertainty is especially difficult because, for most of us, it cannot be compartmentalized," said Steve North, MD, MPH, FAAFP, medical director of Eleanor Health. "We face uncertainty regarding multiple aspects of our life, from 'Will I be able to find toilet paper?' to 'When can I see my family in Wisconsin again?' to 'When will this end?'" It feels like even small or personal aspects of our lives are no longer in our control, not to mention the nationwide and worldwide issues that keep piling up. "Being able to predict and plan daily, weekly, and monthly events helps us organize our lives," Dr. North explained. "We take enjoyment in planning a trip or knowing that next Thursday we will go see a movie with friends."
In addition, "uncertainty is fertile ground for anxiety and fear, because you don't know what's going to happen," said Jelena Kecmanovic, PhD, clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, in an interview with the Washington Post. Uncertainty essentially opens the door to anxiety, because your brain fills in the unknown with worst-case scenarios. And if you're a big planner, you might be feeling the strain more than most. "Trying to exert control on an uncontrollable situation can leave you feeling even more stressed," said Lacie Barber, an occupational health psychologist at San Diego State University, in the Post article.
It can all culminate in mental health issues, Dr. North told POPSUGAR. "A decreased sense of control and the inability to find ways to regain the control can definitely lead to increasing symptoms of depression and anxiety," he said. Those, in turn, can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking or smoking, that can make the problem worse.
How to Cope With Uncertainty During the Pandemic
If you're struggling with the unknown, Dr. North recommended first reaching out to your loved ones. "The first step is to often let your family and friends know," he explained. "What you are experiencing is normal." Knowing that other people are going through the same thing and talking it out is a simple and helpful place to start.
It may also help to break down your uncertainty and fear into separate chunks, Beth Meyerowitz, PhD, professor of psychology and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, told the Post. "It is really difficult to figure out how best to cope with 'The Pandemic,'" she explained. Break it down and figure out what specific things are causing you anxiety, whether that's fear for your health or your family's, concerns about losing or finding a job, or worries about stay-at-home orders. It's easier to address and come to terms with these problems individually than as one big, unapproachable whole.
And if you're looking for something actionable you can do right now to ease your anxiety and uncertainty, Dr. North offered a few last tips: take a break from social media and the news, get more physical activity, and find small tasks you can accomplish, like "weeding the garden, painting a picture, cooking a new meal for dinner," he suggested. It may also be helpful to talk to a therapist.
Coping with anxiety around uncertainty is never easy, especially when it's as all-encompassing as it feels right now. When you find yourself getting overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember there's always one thing you can control: the way you react and move forward.