Patients Ask Us In Teletherapy: How Are We Supposed To Tolerate Uncertainty During COVID-19?
We are living in a hugely uncertain time right now. Doing online therapy in NYC, we make sure to emphasize to patients that it’s okay to be scared, sad and angry right now. It’s okay not to know. We don’t know what’s going to happen, how long our usual routines will be so starkly disrupted and what the world will look like after COVID-19. And this is a time when, as many people have said both in therapy and out, we’re all going to have to get good at tolerating uncertainty.
However, when most people say they’re tolerating uncertainty, they usually mean they’re expecting to tolerate something really bad rather than uncertainty itself. When people say they don’t know what’s going to happen, they’re often envisioning and fearing the worst-case scenario, particularly in the time of the coronavirus. But going to the worst-case scenario can produce more anxiety in dreading that unknown. In our remote therapy sessions recently, we’ve talked with patients about how this comes down to how we define uncertainty and what it really means to tolerate it.
Uncertainty Means All Possibilities
What is uncertainty? It means we literally don’t know for sure. Uncertainty is broad; it means all possibilities.
Not knowing all the possibilities is actually how we usually operate, even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic. For instance, we can’t predict that our Internet will work tomorrow or that the curry dish we’re making will be as delicious as we think it will be–and we are typically okay with that. Not because we need to accept all the range of possibilities from no-Internet to all-the-Internet or inedible curry to the most amazing life-changing dish ever created, but we just need to be okay with not knowing what particular point it will land on. Typically, when we’re dealing with uncertainty, most people select a range of likelihood within the complete spectrum of possibility.
With COVID-19, Figuring Out The Range Of Likely Possibilities Has Been Difficult
The problem currently, though, is that selecting this range of likely possibilities has become difficult with COVID-19. There are many questions that feel incredibly pressing with no answer that seems to be forthcoming: How much social distancing is enough? How long does COVID-19 last? What will the world look like after it’s all over?
This reality has tipped how we usually deal with uncertainty toward worst-case scenarios. This is very understandable–and it’s also a huge source of anxiety. Additionally, the best-case scenarios we’ve been envisioning around COVID-19 aren’t really the best. While worst-case scenarios abound, people then assume the best-case scenario is that we’re able to slow the damage and this is over more quickly than expected. But that’s not the best-case scenario. Actual best-case looks more like: this ends quickly and we all win the lottery, find the loves of our lives, get our dream job, and are generally content and fulfilled personally, professionally and socially. It’s a question of scaling, and right now, our scales have been skewed toward the worst-case.
How Do You Tolerate Uncertainty?: Recognize All Possibilities, Not Just The Worst-case
Now, we’re not saying this dream best-case scenario for COVID-19 is likely. We’re saying that the unknown is actually a lot broader than people tend to think. Tolerating the uncertainty then–by definition–doesn’t mean holding all bad possibilities at once, it means recognizing all possibilities.
The more energy we pour into worst-case scenarios, the more we feed the fear and allow it to drive. It’s important to note there is a way that it can feel protective for some people to jump to the worst-case scenario, as if by thinking about or expecting it, they can be better prepared. But this tends to give the worst-case scenario more credence, and means you’re spending more time and energy in that fearful place. We should remember that what the fear is telling us isn’t necessarily true or what’s going to happen.
This doesn’t mean you can’t recognize, especially during COVID-19, when you’re feeling afraid and be kind toward it. It’s okay to feel scared right now. There’s a way to acknowledge fear and maintain control, rather than leaning on fear and losing control.
One way to acknowledge the fear, maintain control and tolerate uncertainty is recognizing that you can actually be active in reducing the range of likely possibilities yourself. Many people we’ve spoken to in remote therapy have said they become more anxious the more they wash their hands, when they should actually be getting less anxious. It’s one way we can actively reduce the likelihood of the worst-case scenario. If you are socially distancing, washing your hands and limiting the time you spend in other places with other people (e.g. the grocery store), then you are effectively creating a range of likely outcomes that works in your–and everyone else’s–favor.