The scariest part of horror films is often the build-up that escalates, bit by terrifying bit, until we discover who or what is lurking in the darkness. Living with uncertainty in real life can come with a similar sense of dread. Many of us have been creeping through this year on edge, wondering what’s next, often peering at the future through theoretical finger slits. It’s no wonder why psychologists like Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., have been inundated with new clients.
Gallagher, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, describes anxiety as “the intolerance of uncertainty and the fear of the unknown.” There are many types of clinical anxiety disorders, and there’s also a technical difference between anxious feelings and a diagnosable anxiety disorder. But everyone encounters some level of anxiety at some point, and Gallagher explains that current events are specifically causing an uptick in anxiety about the unknown.
“For many of us, we’ve never really experienced anxiety in this way before,” Gallagher tells SELF. The pandemic having no end in sight means many of us don’t know when we can see our loved ones safely, and certainly not when we can take a vacation from the madness or otherwise try to resume “normal” life. The presidential election is also a major source of anxiety, clearly, with many people feeling as though we’re choosing between two starkly different futures, depending on the outcome. To sum it up, Gallagher calls this year a “carousel of doom,” adding, “It just keeps going around and around, and we’re not getting anywhere.”
Gallagher and other anxiety experts say that living with uncertainty is one of the most common topics coming up in their therapy sessions lately. In case you’re in the same emotional boat, here are six practical tips for getting through the fear of what’s going to happen next.
1. Normalize your uncertainty-induced anxiety.
Humans are hardwired to avoid adverse outcomes. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. Feeling uncertain about what’s going to happen means we don’t know how to prepare for or avoid a negative outcome, which cranks up our anxiety. This is why Francesca Parker, Psy.D., senior researcher and adjunct psychology professor at Pepperdine University, advises being compassionate with ourselves for these feelings because they’re entirely normal. “We are dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress right now, and being in quarantine for eight months is something none of us have ever had to deal with before,” Parker, who is also a psychologist for Brain Tuff, a platform that is working to break the stigma around mental health, tells SELF. “People have been hard on themselves about whether they’re doing a good enough job with parenting, they feel unproductive when seeing on social media that everyone is making bread and writing novels, but there are probably more of us who have just been hanging on. We need to normalize that for ourselves.” This kind of uncertainty is no picnic, and pretty much everyone is having a hard time with it in one way or another. Give yourself a break.
2. Practice feeling your feelings.
Your initial instinct at the first whisper of uncertainty may be to try to completely stuff down the accompanying anxiety. But Gallagher explains the importance of tolerating your feelings, even though they can feel, well, awful. She compares this to building a muscle: “It’s learning to tolerate the feeling, and learning to say, ‘I am afraid. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and there’s nothing I can do about it right now. I’ll handle it when I get to it.’” Parker says that this strategy works better than trying to avoid the emotions, which typically causes them to stick around or get worse. “Even though feelings can be scary, often people find that when they give themselves even 30 seconds to feel whatever’s coming up, it passes through,” Parker says. “If I say, ‘Don’t think about pink elephants,’ the first thing your brain does is imagine a pink elephant. Telling ourselves to stop worrying is never successful, and avoiding those thoughts can also lead to some unhealthy behaviors.” Here are some tips for feeling—and managing—really unpleasant feelings.
3. Write a list detailing what you can control.
As we mentioned, it’s human nature to try to avoid negative outcomes. This means that people who are dealing with anxiety are often planners who find relief in being able to plan as much as possible to avoid whatever it is they fear. The issue with uncertainty is that we often don’t know what exactly to plan for, so it may seem like we can’t plan anything at all. But that’s not the case. “When there is uncertainty, anxious people feel out of control,” Inger Burnett-Ziegler, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, tells SELF. “A key part of reducing anxiety is recognizing the factors that are in your control, and letting go of that which is out of your control.”
Gallagher also believes in focusing on what you can control and going as far as writing a list of what’s worrying you, as well as what aspects of those fears you can and can’t control. “A big lie anxiety tells you is, ‘If I keep thinking about this, I’m going to work myself out of it,’” Gallagher says. Writing out what you actually can and can’t control can help prevent you from rumination, which is basically an anxious thought spiral that might feel productive but really isn’t. Once you write out this list and know what you can control, focus on that and try to release the rest. So, if you’re feeling extremely anxious about the outcome of the election, taking control might mean cementing your voting plan (if you haven’t already), spending the weekend texting and phone-banking, and firming up your post-election self-care plan. If you’re fearful of the rise in COVID-19 cases, exerting control might involve saying no to invitations to small indoor gatherings and wearing a mask even if other people are not.
4. Tell yourself, “The worst-case scenario isn’t a sure thing.”
When you’re feeling uncertain about the outcome of something important, it can be easy to assume it will play out in the worst possible way. This is a cognitive distortion, basically meaning your anxiety is lying to you.
“We want to make sure we leave mental space to think about the best-case scenario,” Xiaolu Jiang, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and founder of South Jersey Mental Health, LLC, tells SELF. The point isn’t to convince yourself the best-case scenario will definitely happen, she says, but instead to remind yourself that the worst-case scenario also won’t definitely happen. “Every period of uncertainty does not end in a negative outcome,” Jiang says. As an example: “Your chosen political candidate could lose, but he also could win.” While either outcome of this election certainly isn’t a magic wand that can instantly fix all of our country’s ills, allowing yourself a little hope can still go a long way. Here’s more advice on how to be hopeful even when it’s really, really hard.
5. Write a list of uncertain times you’ve already gotten through.
Jiang expresses the importance of reminding yourself of similar times you’ve gotten through in the past. “Think about those past experiences when you have dealt successfully with the unknown, or when the unknown revealed itself to you,” she says, emphasizing that you should especially remember times when uncertainty has worked out in your favor.
To be fair, our current situation is extraordinary in many ways. Having been through hard and uncertain times in the past doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the immense and specific uncertainty of this exact moment. But it can still remind you that you’ve been resilient before and may be able to rely on some of that same resilience now.
6. Seek help if your uncertainty is severely affecting your life.
Even though a certain level of uncertainty and resulting anxiety is to be expected right now, there comes a point where it’s so overwhelming that turning to mental health resources is helpful or even necessary. (And, to be clear, your uncertainty or anxiety doesn’t need to reach an overwhelming point in order for you to “deserve” help.)Taking this step can look like a lot of different things, depending on your resources and preferences. Maybe it means downloading mental health apps. Maybe it means finding a therapist who shares a core part of your identity. Maybe it means looking into online support groups or digital therapy platforms. Maybe it means checking out these mental health resources specifically geared toward election anxiety. The point is, whatever mental health help looks like for you is valid. “I’ve never been busier because everyone’s learning to tolerate anxiety,” Gallagher says. “If you’re feeling anxious and stressed, it’s normal. Don’t be afraid to get help.”