How to manage uncertainty during crisis

Almost overnight, the world as we knew it dramatically changed. And the situation continues to change on a daily basis. Social isolation … job instability … information overload. 

A few days ago I spoke to ABC radio presenter Julie Clift about how to maintain our mental health in the midst of crisis. 

Here is the start of our conversation. 

To hear more, click on the link below.

* * * * *

Staying mentally healthy is about understanding the cause of mental distress: uncertainty. 

The human brain does not like uncertainty. And uncertainty is at the core of the corona crisis. 

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. We don’t know if we’re going to catch it, whether we’ll have a job tomorrow or what restrictions the next day will bring. Everything in our lives suddenly feels uncertain. And this goes against how we’re wired.

Our brain is geared to constantly make predictions about what will happen next so that it can guide our behaviour. And when we can’t do that, the rational part of our brain shuts down and the emotional centre – the limbic system – takes over. This brings on fear, anxiety and erratic behaviour. 

Fear of uncertainty is what drove the toilet paper buying-binge and all the panic buying. People are grasping at something they can control. Literally grasping.

Researchers at University College London conducted experiments that showed people are more stressed when they are told they might receive an electric shock than if they know they’re definitely going to get one. So it’s completely normal to feel anxious, fearful and panicked. 

And the first step in protecting our mental health is to pause and name how you feel. Even if the answer is ‘I don’t know – I’ve never felt like this before’, just pausing to ask the question and acknowledging our fear of uncertainty, starts to re-engage our forebrain – where rational thinking takes place – and we feel calmer.

The second thing is to remember that we’re all in this together. There isn’t a person on the planet who is unaffected by this in one way or another. You are not alone. Talk to other people about how you’re feeling and the specific things that are worrying you. Ask others how they’re coping with everything. Your confidante will respond in one of three ways:

  1. They’ll provide reassurance 
  2. They’ll offer practical advice
  3. Or they’ll say the two most powerful words in the English language: Me too. And hearing the words ‘me too’ – or something to that effect – immediately dampens down our stress. Even if neither of you have any answers, you’ll both feel better for sharing your concerns. 

The third thing that will keep us mentally healthy during this crisis – counterintuitive though it sounds – is to actively look for ways we can help others. Focus on what you can do for others – in small ways or in big ways. Nothing improves our mental health more than feeling that we’re making a positive contribution to someone else – whether it’s a friend or a stranger. Notice when a colleague is looking distressed and ask them RU OK? Can I do something to help? If your neighbour is unable to buy toilet paper, leave a few of your rolls on their doorstep. This is the time for random acts of kindness. It will improve your mental health and the other person’s.

Click here to listen to the rest of the interview.

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone you feel will appreciate it. 

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