Isolation Series: Uncertainty & Worry in Unprecedented Times
Written by Lakhita Uppal
I think I’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ more this past month than ever before. Its syllables reverberate in my head through cycles of discomfort, intimidation and dread, and its ominous presence sits heavily in the 2 metre gap between strangers and interrupts every single conversation.
It’s a word that enjoys shaming me; like I shouldn’t have become so comfortable that I didn’t expect its arrival. Some call this war; but having only ever experienced peace and freedom, I had previously taken physical and mental health for granted. I’d taken the safety of my own home as respite for granted too, but now continuously think of those living in abusive, neglectful or empty households. Ultimately, I’m ashamed for thinking I was in control of everything; not only what I do or say, but also how things work out for me.
Above all, however, the word ‘unprecedented’ is disturbing too, because now I can only ever hear it in Boris Johnson’s voice.
I’ve spent time wondering how this word was intended to serve us. As a strategy for collectivist panic, or a request for patience? Or perhaps the word serves as a reminder that things can be unexpected, and therefore, we are to learn to live with uncertainty.
Uncertainty, however, may sometimes coincide with worry and fear. Feelings of being unsure, or things being uncontrollable, may allow our minds to overthink incessantly. Human beings like knowing what to expect. We crave objectivity and the reassurance of cause and effect. We’re also beings innately driven to survive. When these things are suddenly threatened, our bodies naturally go into a ‘fight or flight’ response. This response, without our awareness, kickstarts natural biological processes into hyperarousal.
It is normal to notice our bodies react to this, possibly through increased heart rate, perspiration or shaking. When this state of hyperarousal is sustained, we can even struggle with sleeping, concentration and an inability to relax. If we look carefully, this innate reaction allows us to recognise the impact of uncertainty on the body and mind, and how wholly encompassing worry can be.
Conceptualising the current pandemic in this way, I wonder if it’s easier to find peace in this tumultuous time through the acceptance of the unknown or uncontrollable. Could attempting to accept uncertainty help with our worries? Although this sounds idealistic, acceptance in this way resonates with three core parts of my identity. My experiences as a Sikh woman, a trainee Psychologist and a yoga teacher, has enabled me to better accept the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19. Reminding myself of philosophies of kismet, or fate, offers some solace, as does an understanding of the co-dependent relationship between increased faith and decreased fear. Indeed, the feeling of being held by a higher power may enable us to surrender some fear, accepting our inability to control what has been destined. Drawing upon yoga philosophy, the concept of uncertainty is spiritually poetic, because within it exists space for expansion in many different directions.
Accepting uncertainty often coincides with relinquishing the desire to control that which is uncontrollable. In the situation we are currently in, we find that we cannot control much of it. There is, however, much more than we think under our control; right here in the present, and it is in the way we choose to perceive and engage with our thoughts, and crucially, in what we decide to do.
Understanding Why Worry Exists
We can conceptualise worry as a continuous thought process. Likened to a chain reaction, thoughts sometimes continue or escalate negatively from seemingly minor points. Looking at our thoughts can help us distinguish between ‘practical’ worries and ‘hypothetical’ worries. The practical worries that exist are actionable and resolvable. On the other hand, hypothetical worries are often based on worst-case scenarios, and known as catastrophising, can leave us feeling stuck and out of control. For example, a practical worry about your children being off school and potentially bored is something that may be resolved by creating an activity schedule, or organising Skype playdates. The hypothetical worries often characterise a negative prediction of what may happen. For example, ‘my children won’t progress with their education’.
These worried thoughts are automatic. Referring to the ‘flight or fight’ response mentioned earlier, when these thoughts coincide with bodily reactions, they are often evidenced as hard to disprove by our minds. More often than not though, these automatic and runaway thoughts have no way of being evidenced as true.
It is inevitable that this situation enables worrying thoughts to exist, not only as are we sitting in hyperarousal as a reaction to the threat of the virus; but also because it is currently an unclear, unpredictable and a brand-new collective experience. It is all uncertain. An existential paradox recognises that the only certain thing in life is uncertainty. Whilst disconcerting for some, this arguably means there will always be some degree of worry, but when this worry compromises our overall happiness, or leaves us feeling demoralised or exhausted, we can begin to recognise how to intervene.
★ Feeling worried is a natural response to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Worried thoughts appear automatically, and when they coincide with the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response, they can become consuming and affect our ability to live our normal everyday life. ★
Managing Worried Thoughts
It may be helpful to begin making a note of these hypothetical thoughts that automatically create worry, perhaps plotting alongside them the ‘amount’ of worry experienced. Take for example a recent thought I had of ‘I will lose all of my loved ones’, which made me feel ‘85% worried’. Questioning what valid, concrete proof I had that this would certainly materialise left it unanswered. Instead, thinking about evidence to disprove this, I thought about how none of my loved ones were currently sick and were taking measures to stay safe and healthy; being able to recognise that the fear of losing them was an exaggerated, negative prediction for the present situation.
From this, my worry subsided and I felt more relaxed.
We can also try to think of some alternative, or maybe more balanced, thoughts; perhaps something that considers acceptance and compassion. For example, a more compassionate version for this example could be, ‘it is natural for me to be worried about my loved ones because I care, and they are important to me’. We may then plot a second ‘amount’ of worry beside this and notice how this alternative thought may leave a very different feeling than worry. Now re-rating my worry at ‘40%’, I felt calmer, the thought felt less heavy and more loving.
Considering how these worried thoughts play with uncertainty, we can seek evidence to prove and disprove their validity. To summarise:
Make a note of thoughts that create a feeling of worry
Find ‘evidence’ that supports and does not support this statement
Think of a more accepting or compassionate way to consider the thought
Consider the associated feeling after repositioning your worry
Managing Bodily Reactions to Worry
My practice as a yoga teacher offers solace as I physically slow down and notice my body. It can be helpful to acknowledge our thoughts, and associated bodily sensations, and try to reconnect with them through slow, deep breathing. Meditation or moments of mindfulness can also allow for this reconnection, by creating space between worried thoughts to focus on the present moment.
Through this, we become aware of what can be controlled now, such as the number of slow, deep breaths we take, or the surrounding sounds we can hear. Following this up with notes of gratitude can also be a beautiful way to focus on the present, reminding ourselves that we can still connect with positive feelings in this time of uncertainty and worry.
Try this ‘Soothing Rhythm Breathing’ technique:
Focus on your breath and feel your belly rising and falling
Gently slow down your breath and count to 5 as you inhale through the nose; hold your breath counting for 3; exhale through the mouth for 5; and hold the empty breath as you count to 3
As you’re breathing more slowly and deeply, focus on the idea of ‘slowing down’ – your breath… your body… your thoughts… your emotions…
Keep going for at least two minutes
Whilst accepting uncertainty in this time is difficult, we should be kind to ourselves and remember that our mental health doesn’t have to impaired. By finding comfort in the natural and collective existence of worry, we can choose to respond to worried thoughts with acceptance and compassion, by shifting our focus to what we can control and what is certain. By considering what is happening right here, right now, we slowly regain some time and space between unhelpful thoughts. Eventually, as those spaces grow, we can use them to cultivate joy and connect with loved ones (even at 2 metres apart).
If you feel anxious or feel that distressing thoughts are escalating, or that they are severely impacting your happiness and daily activities, visit the NHS guidance on dealing with mental health problems as a result of Covid-19 or contact your GP.
Written by Lakhita Uppal, Trainee Counselling Psychologist at London Metropolitan University
Verified by Dr Raffaello Antonino, Counselling Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University
FACE COVID by Dr Ross Harris
Living with worry and anxiety amidst global uncertainty by Dr Matthew Whalley and Dr Hardeep Kaur
Mind over mood by Dr Dennis Greenberger and Dr Christine Padesky