Waiting for normal: how to deal with uncertainty

Enjoying the ride?

We’re halfway into the first year of this new decade and it has been a roller-coaster ride. Worse, one of those awful rides that catapult you in a giant slingshot that straddles on rickety stilts. Only you’re still flying through the air, waiting to touch solid ground.

Everyone has been feeling their way in the darkness, only able to see three inches in front of their noses. Including governments and world leaders. That’s because everything has been upended, suspended high in the stratosphere. Our plans and us are in one giant vertical indoor skydiving machine, suspending us in mid-air.

All because of a tiny microorganism.

All those plans you had to travel to Lesotho in the winter months and see the fairy-tale wonder of thick snow everywhere – up in the air. Oh, you planned on doubling your turnover this year with your multi-pronged marketing strategy – in the air. Heck, you don’t even know if you’re going to meet overheads at this lockdown rate.

And if you’re a student, you might be worried if you’ll graduate this year, or if you will have to repeat again next year. (This is a looming reality in some countries. In South Africa, people are worried they will lose a generation due to the immense learning losses in no-fee schools. Most learners do not have access to online learning widening the inequality gap. It is unfortunate that the poor are the most affected. In Botswana, where I live, the government provided learning support on radio, which is widely accessible. However, not all children can adapt to this learning style and there will inevitably be learning losses.) When schools reopen will your child be safe or should you keep her at home? And if you do, you worry over how you’ll continue her education and ensure she doesn’t miss an entire year.

Getting to the root of the problem (Spoiler: It’s us)

For the purposes of this post, I am limiting my discussion to the average person’s general mental health and not professionally diagnosed mental illnesses and disorders on which I am not qualified to write about.

Anxiety is widespread. Like a co-morbid disease to the pandemic.

At the root of all of this though, is not the virus. Although it would certainly help if it disappears as quickly as it appeared.

All of this anxiety and disturbed mental health stems from uncertainty. Even the extreme measures being taken to control the outbreak is due to the fact that not much is known about how the virus works.

In times of uncertainty it is difficult to plan. Planning offers us predictability and gives us a feeling of control over our situations. Uncertainty hits us right where it hurts: in the lower end of the pyramid.

I’m talking about the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. Uncertainty takes away a feeling of security which is an important need. The pyramid indicates that needs will be satisfied from the bottom upwards. Without security, we cannot move on to other human needs such as a sense of belonging, freedom and personal growth. I’m no expert but, evolved human beings as we are, planning usually satisfies this need to a satisfactory level. When we are unable to plan, we don’t feel secure or safe, and this triggers the primal brain to take over.

This is when fear and anxiety kicks in to keep us ‘safe’. It works wonders for short periods of time. Think about any potentially dangerous situation you escaped and that was your fear and anxiety keeping you out of harm’s way.

The new uncomfortable normal

Extended periods of perceived danger from which we are unable to escape, creates a heightened sense of fear and anxiety that becomes the new uncomfortable equilibrium. And your mental health begins to be affected.

Economic fears over income losses or sudden poverty, restricted travel and fears for health and our lives are all real. I mean, it’s happening all around us.

This isn’t one of those problems that the good doctors tells us exists only in our heads. It isn’t a perceived fear that doesn’t exist in reality, like the fear of public speaking. Your bones might tremble in their sockets the same way they would if a lion was standing in front of you, but there is no real threat to your life speaking in front of a crowd. This time the life-and-death fear in our bones is based on a real danger.

So how do we deal with it?

Yet, it doesn’t have to induce all out panic, anxiety, stress and worry.

Uncertainty doesn’t have a pretty face. She smells of rotten brussel sprouts and cheese breath that we’d do anything to steer clear of her. Even make doubtful choices that keep us stuck in situations we hate.

Let me turn you 180 degrees and show you a different picture, that might put things in perspective.

This virus, that has shaken things up, is one of many millions of different microorganisms that could potentially kill us at any time. Some are literally on you body, your floor, kitchen counter, pet’s mouth, or in the air you breathe right now. But we choose to think about this specific one.

Outside your home, on the highways, there are thousands of vehicles traveling at high speeds in all directions that could knock you over or crash into your car killing you on impact, at any given time. There are people who may randomly choose you as their next victim. I haven’t even gotten to the flora and fauna dangers yet. Still, we choose to focus on this one virus.

In outer space, there are limitless combinations of meteorites, radiation and possible alien threats that loom over us like a dark shadowy monster. Again our focus is zoomed in on covid-19.

When you think about the trillions of moving particles on micro and macro-biological levels, both on earth and in the greater universe, it’s a miracle we’re not all struck by lightning, or even infected with a strange new disease everyday.

In a way, we have decided that this virus, over all the other very real threats, will have our undivided attention. Anxiety thrives on attention.

Zoom out. Not in.

Allow your attention to expand outwards onto the millions of other threats that exist and are also very real, and something really cool might happen. You may find that the virus and this pandemic shrinks back into the viscous mass of other potential threats. When that happens, you see it more clearly for what it is.

The reality is, you could be stressing about this pandemic and something else will come out of the blue to hit you sideways. It’s just how this world works. It’s how we work. We’re not able to process all the data around us all of the time.

When you allow it to be one of the millions of known and unknown dangers your vulnerable existence faces every second, trying to control it and its effects becomes pointless. When you cease to control something, you effectively give up control and let go.

Letting go is the trick to dealing with uncertainty. Like all good solutions, it is counter-intuitive. Uncertainty demands that we seek control, in some form. Even if it’s buying enough toilet paper to last you twenty years till the next global disaster. Allow yourself to go with the flow of what’s happening right now. Allow yourself to be suspended in the air.

You don’t know when it will end, or how you will make it through, but it’s okay. You know that no matter what, you will do what it takes. Because that’s how you came this far in your life. One thing you won’t do though, is worry unnecessarily over things you can’t control. For one thing, prolonged stress affects your immunity and right now that is one thing you need to increase.

Wash your hands. Become a pirate

I’m not saying don’t take any preventative measures. I’m saying take those measures and keep going. Follow the guidelines on preventing infection and then forget about it. It’s easier if you establish a routine and develop habits around sanitising your surroundings and your person.

Around the world, lockdowns are ending, easing into a watered-down version of normal. It’s a unique time. Changes are afoot. Once you’re out of the pandemic’s mental clutches, allow yourself to be an opportunist. A swash-buckling pirate of an opportunist. It will help you look to the brighter side of things when you look for the opportunities that change inevitably brings with it.

And go beyond just the economic opportunities. Look for new ways of doing old activities. This might just be a chance to improve, reconnect or start afresh.

There were times of panic -inducing uncertainty in my life and this quote always propped me right back up on my wooden leg:

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