Dealing with Uncertainty & Managing Fear

Worried man sitting on edge of bed

With the country slowly starting to reopen following lockdown restrictions, many people will be breathing a sigh of relief. They’ll now be able to travel further, meet small groups of friends and visit a selected number of business outlets. For many however, a sense of uncertainty will still be very real, not knowing how the next number of weeks and months will play out. We hear from experienced psychotherapist and mental health author Jason Brennan, on how to manage the fear and worry related to uncertainty.

Reactionary Fear – to be expected

All of us have in our own way reacted to this global event, as we try to process our thoughts and feelings. Each of us has been going through levels of loss, as one by one, common everyday things we took for granted have become temporarily restricted to us. As part of this loss, it’s inevitable that we have at times felt scared, worried and afraid – for ourselves, our loved ones or our ability to earn a living. This is a natural and expected reaction; part of the loss process and nothing to be overly concerned about. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and over time as we adapt, our fears and worries should begin to dissipate as our strong human adaptation skills naturally kick in.

Anticipatory Fear – worrying about what might happen 

Unfortunately, sometimes we can get stuck in parts of the loss process and begin to ruminate in a negative way about what has happened, what is happening and what we imagine will happen. We then move into ‘anticipatory fear’ about the future and start to overthink what we don’t yet presently know. What will life be like in a couple of months time, for example. Although some musing and wondering about the future is natural, if we find ourselves getting very anxious, we need to learn to help ourselves stop this type of thinking. Why? Well in real terms, we don’t yet have enough information about the future to be able to take clear actions. We are therefore worrying about things we cannot yet influence, and this is not good for us.

Woman on her phone sitting on the couch

Helpful Actions – plan ahead 

As things progress, with more information being provided, we can then adapt to the unfolding situation and make decisions to deal with that future situation – then and there. For now, it’s much more productive for us to work on the things we can influence in the here and now. An example of this is our own thoughts, feelings and daily responses. Some good actions to take therefore are:

•    Make a plan each morning for what you want to realistically achieve that day
•    Make some of these wellness related goals, e.g. exercise, relaxation techniques, social contact
•    Check at the end of each day what you have achieved
•    At the end of each week, look at your list to see what helped you most, especially when you felt worried

Self-Awareness – feel better

What we know about worry and fear, especially ‘anticipatory fear’ is that negative thinking makes situations feel much worse than they actually are. A good habit to get into is to become aware of the quality of your thoughts. To do this, simply listen to your body and regularly see what you’re feeling – happy, sad, afraid, calm, relaxed etc. If you feel quite worried or intensely anxious, start to journal your thoughts. Writing out what you think is worrying you will help your body make some sense and meaning of your feelings. Recognise if any of these are negative thoughts, and coach yourself out of it by thinking something else. Or, if it’s a thought about the future, remind yourself that you can’t predict anything, and therefore this thought is not helpful.

Self-Control – feel confident

By having strategies like this in place, we begin to feel more confident as we’re having real influence over certain things. The more we’re able to manage our own thoughts and feelings in relation to any situation, the more resilient we become. Other clinically based self-control strategies are: 
•    Focused breathing exercises
•    A daily meditation routine
•    Short intense bouts of physical exercise 
•    Journaling
These tools can help create a sense of control at a time when we’re feeling a high level of uncertainty and concern. The more we practice these strategies, the more resilient we become. 

If you’re struggling with your current situation, the Couch Counsellor series is here to help. Hosted on Facebook, these Q&A sessions will feature Jason and author Stefanie Preissner, who’ll share their professional advice around lockdown and mental health. Send your question or query via email to couchcounsellor@irishlifehealth.ie