Who else is tired of hearing the phrase: We are living in unprecedented and uncertain times? While overused, unprecedented and uncertain are spot-on to describe this COVID-19 era.
With so many more questions than answers available, guidelines changing daily, and no end in sight for this “new normal” quiet way life in the COVID-19 era, stress and anxiety become a common response. The unknowns of this global crisis make the already-difficult situation far more challenging.
Why Uncertainty Is So Stressful
Dan Grupe, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Health Minds, said, “Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans.” This is because the brain fills in the gaps when it doesn’t know or have a reference point. The brain first looks for familiar clues to categorize any given situation as either threatening or safe. If it can’t properly figure out whether or not something is safe, it will categorize it as a threat – just to be on the safe side. This threatening feeling is uncomfortable and sometimes even scary.
Martin Seligman, founder of the field of positive psychology, said, “The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately. … Catastrophizing is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” This tendency to focus on the negative and allow anxiety about the unknown to drive can cloud anyone’s ability to think clearly. It also inhibits one’s ability to make sound decisions and be the best parent, spouse, friend, child, neighbor, human being, they can be. Gaining a higher tolerance to that tension, stress, and discomfort with the unknown will be incredibly helpful during today’s era of crisis. The problem is, this comfort with the unknown does not come naturally to most people.
If you are in that majority – who struggles with the unknown nature of our current state of the world – keep reading. I’ll outline 10 things you can try to help you ground yourself during this groundless time.
Note: For some people, the recommendations that follow will be impossible, whether because you are suffering from COVID, caregiving, mourning, working on the front lines, or struggling with another hardship as a result of this devastating crisis. If you are reading this and are included in this category, this advice may be impossible and my thoughts and prayers are with you.
If, however, you are reading this stuck at home struggling with a case of feeling stir-crazy and cooped up, this article is for you.
1. Design and Follow Consistent Routines and Rituals
Creating predictability in your day-to-day life can be the antidote to uncertainty, and routines provide predictable, stable anchors in your day and week. When you lose your sense of stability (for some of you, this may have recently disappeared from your life,) it is important to replace it in some way to counteract the uncertainty.
Tool: Try to create activities and chapters – both daily and weekly – and make them consistent. Here are some examples…
- Try morning meditations or morning routines
- Commit to a consistent bedtime
- Do a lunchtime workout
- Walk the neighborhood after work each day
- Join weekly yoga classes, happy hours, or lunches over zoom
- Make your bed each morning
- Schedule one chore for each day of the week and do it at the same time each day, i.e.: noon on Mondays is laundry, noon on Tuesdays is sweeping, noon on Wednesdays is mowing the lawn, etc.
- Feed and walk the dog at the same times each day
2. Remember, You Are Not Alone
This global pandemic is affecting every person in the world in some way or ways. Not only are you not alone in your experience, you are alongside (albeit socially distanced) everyone else who is also affected in this experience. Simply remembering that you are not alone, and knowing that many others are also struggling during this time (and no one is immune to it,) can be comforting. Perhaps the shared pain and struggle can bring us together.
Tool: When you feel lonely or disheartened, take a moment to reflect on the billions of other people in this world who are also affected by this global crisis. Consider how many others are experiencing the very same lonely thoughts at the very same time as you are. In this way, maybe you are not as alone as you thought.
3. Prioritize Self-care
Taking care of yourself is more important now than ever for many reasons. First, when you take good care of yourself, your immune system will be better equipped to fight off the virus, should you be exposed to it. Additionally, when you feel healthy and strong in your body, your mind is more likely to respond to the repercussions of the pandemic in a healthy way, and be more resilient to the stress of being quarantined in your home.
Tools: Make sure you are:
- Getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night
- Eating a balanced diet
- Practicing some mindfulness
- Doing anything you need to do to take care of yourself.
Try to incorporate your healthy self-care practices into a routine (see tip#1), and you’ll tackle two tips in one.
4. Double Down on What You CAN Control
With so much outside of your control in the middle of a pandemic, and so many unknowns about what, when, and how we will move forward, life can be particularly difficult.
To counteract the lack of control you have regarding who you can see and where you can go, try to focus on things that are within your control. Many folks have taken up cooking and baking during this pandemic. Sure, it is practical in the sense that people need to eat and restaurants are closed. However, it can also provide comfort. “I relish having control over situations, and I think right now, that is manifesting itself differently for a lot of people. For me, it means cooking and baking,” said NY-based freelance writer Maya Kosoff in a Vox article. She explained that getting busy in the kitchen offers, “some semblance of control in a situation that is very much outside of my control.” If cooking isn’t your thing, try to take up other hobbies or activities where you can take the helm.
Tool: Make it a point to make simple, conscious decisions every day. The simple things like choosing which online workout class to attend, which path to walk, and what to eat for lunch can help you feel in control. This also goes back to #1, Design and Follow Consistent Routines. Routines give your life structure that you can actually control, which can feel good when so little is within your control.
5. Practice Self-compassion
Understand that it’s going to take time to build your rhythm and tolerance for these new normal circumstances – and it’s difficult! So don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself struggling. Be patient with yourself as you learn, grow, and adjust. It won’t help you at all if you are criticizing yourself throughout the process.
Tool: Imagine a close friend or loved one sitting in front of you, struggling with the effects of the pandemic – from the loneliness, schedule, emotions, homeschooling (whatever you are struggling with). What would be your advice to your friend? What words of wisdom and compassion do you have for him or her? Then, apply the advice to your own life.
Meditation can improve your capacity to respond to stress, uncertainty, and volatility, all of which are quite prevalent right now. While meditation cannot change the circumstances of the pandemic, a consistent meditation practice will help you react to the circumstances in a healthier way, rather than with anxiety, fear, and dread. Creating a state of mindfulness and inclining your mind to pause before letting it spin out of control is a natural extension of meditation.
Tool: Begin a daily meditation practice at the same time each day. Start small with five minute a day, and see how it affects you. If you’ve never tried meditation before, read this article first for some advice on how to get started.
7. View the Change of Pace as an Opportunity
The brain may interpret uncertainty as stressful, but that doesn’t mean it has to be ENTIRELY bad. In fact, there are many ways in which the quarantine may support you or your goals. Considering what those are may help shift your mood in a positive direction.
One of my favorite quotes by Rumi references this perspective:
“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” ~Rumi
Tool: To embrace this approach, ask yourself “How might the pandemic actually be good for me?” i.e.: more time with family, learn to slow down, time to cook, finally get the garage organized, etc… Take this exercise a step further by asking, “What positive changes might we see in society and the world as a result of this pandemic?”
8. Embody Curiosity
Curiosity is a survival skill during times of uncertainty. It can be such a powerful tool because a curious mindset can help alleviate the need people have to be comfortable – and feeling comfortable is just unlikely during a global crisis – one we don’t know when or how will end.
Creativity, inquisitiveness, and openness are several important ingredients in curiosity, and each of these is key to managing the unknown gracefully. When you are truly embracing a curious mindset, you are able to reframe negative experiences, see silver linings and new possibilities for action, and adopt a growth mindset during difficult times. All of these not only help you endure uncertainty, but can also help you learn and grow as an individual, too.
Tool: Choose a new activity you are curious about, but have no experience with. Then … set aside some time to figure it out while adopting a beginner’s mind and a curious mindset.
If you’ve always wanted to learn a type of dance, sign up for a class. If you’ve always wanted to cook a technically-challenging, fancy meal, plant yourself in the kitchen. If it’s a language or subject you’ve always found intriguing, enroll in an online course. As you learn about the new subject or activity, study the way you are as a beginner and learn from the style of questions you ask and the mood you bring to the new activity. Often when you are a curious beginner, you bring a sense of wonder and awe that is harder to bring to conversations where you are experienced. You may notice that it’s difficult to be in a bad mood and be curious at the same time – and that practicing curiosity can be really fun.
9. Connect with People
It’s important to stay connected to those you care about … from a distance, of course. Even if you live alone and even if you are an introvert, having people whom you trust to talk with, listen to, unwind with, support, and lift one another up is critical.
Tool: Schedule virtual brunches, lunches, happy hours, or walk-and-talks over the phone or video can help you keep your relationships strong and supportive during the quarantine.
10. Work with a Coach
A coach can be your partner to help you through this difficult time, and also help you use this period as an opportunity to achieve your goals and move your business or career forward, and learn the superpower of becoming an adaptable leader.
I’m a leadership and executive coach, so I am biased here. However, I’ve watched my clients thrive during difficult life changes and challenges, with the support of a coach. Coaching can help you become more adaptable and flexible to rapidly changing times, help you cope with challenges that arise, and be your thinking partner – which is particularly helpful during stressful times when your mind feels foggy. Coaches can also help you establish routines, adopt curiosity, help you stay centered, challenge your blind spots, and shift your perspective – all helpful benefits during this COVID era.
Tool: Hire a coach! If you’re skeptical about coaching or not sure where to start, schedule a free session with me and you’ll learn more about how coaching may be able to support you and your goals.