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The Art of Embracing Uncertainty

Please note that the content of this article is not to be considered as a replacement for seeking out a professional for counseling.

In an age of seemingly disheartening uncertainty, it is easy to become highly cerebral, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The apparent ambiguity that may quietly linger in numerous spheres of our lives may perpetuate pessimism, intensify stress and anxiety as it overshadows our self-assurance and sense of security, fragment our self-trust and trust in the predictability of our daily lives, and restrain and confine our sense of purpose and meaning in our existence. Managing the anxiety that may escort our sense of decreasing control over our own lives in the context of the unrelenting accompanying uncertainty may become a difficult and seemingly defeating endeavor. Nevertheless, there are elements that may assist us in effectively navigating our relations with random or predictable unpredictability that accompanies our lives.

Charles Darwin - a naturalist, recognized as the father of evolutionary theory - once postulated that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Below, I list some activities that may support our adapting to, effectively managing, and finding more comfort and reassurance in our relationship with uncertainty and in the continuance of our well-being.

1. Compassionate Self-Acceptance: Accepting and responding to our imperfect humanity and imperfect selves via a compassionate lens is vital. This concept refers to us accepting and embracing our unconditional self-worth and value and placing intentional effort to practice self-talk that is reflective of mindful empathy, kindness, love, validation, and forgiveness - and not judgmental, condescending, blaming or shaming - regardless of our circumstances. Compassionate self-acceptance serves to build our self-understanding, self-forgiveness, self-care, coping, self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence, and resilience. Another means of supporting compassionate self-acceptance is by acknowledging that our existence essentially involves constant learning (and that essentially the concept of not good enough or failure is only a notion, not a fact). It’s about nourishing and cultivating a gentle, authentic, and nurturing relationship with ourselves, a connection that supports our dignity in our totality, especially in the context of uncertainty surrounding us.

2. Self-Care via Healthy Lifestyle Choices: In accordance with self-acceptance and self-compassion, it is essential that we commit ourselves to regular engagement in activities that support our physical and mental health and our overall well-being. This may include assuring we obtain restful and restorative sleep, essential nutrition (that supports our physical and mental health), movement or exercise, rest and relaxation, supportive, connecting, and meaningful socializing and spiritual revitalizing. All these, independently and collectively, may assist in alleviating or reducing the accumulation of stress and to support our centeredness, grounding, inner peace, self-assurance, and resilience in uncertain times.

3. Acceptance of Uncertainty: Accepting that uncertainty is inevitable and a constant in our existential existence - and considering it may yield unanticipated fruitful opportunities or new beginnings - would expectantly support the easing of some of our human suffering. Each of us takes comfort in particular tolerance levels as associated with uncertainty, unpredictability, and risk in different circumstances and spheres of our lives. Regardless of the number of forthcoming uncertain circumstances that may befall us at any given time, taking the time to identify and to evaluate each of them, prioritize them in order of our perceived significance, and work through one uncertainty at a time may reduce the potential of our experiencing overwhelm.

If finding it difficult to accept a particular uncertainty, we may compassionately reflect on our beliefs surrounding it to assist in understanding the particulars of our uneasiness and seek solutions to cope effectively. Our beliefs, perceptions - i.e., interpreting uncertainty as daunting/catastrophic or as challenging but as a learning, confidence building, and growth promoting opportunity - and self-talk (i.e., I am incapable of coping and helpless vs. I am capable and have personal control of myself) will expectantly influence the nature and degree of our acceptance, adaptive coping and living resiliently with the incessant uncertainty in our lives. Shifting to adaptive beliefs, perceptions, and self-talk in the context of uncertainty may assist us in reducing our apprehension/fear and accepting and adapting well in our relationship with uncertainty.

4. Acceptance of Anxiety: As humans, we are never completely free of stress and anxiety. Anxiety has its evolutionary adaptive roots - to inform, prepare, and activate us to adaptively respond to impending threats or danger. When stress/anxiety heightens and interferes with our healthy functioning in our daily lives and our overall well-being, however, it necessitates caring action to reduce stress/anxiety to adaptive levels. It is not uncommon for uncertainty to heighten our stress/anxiety to some degree, and, as such, it is important to be self-aware of how we experience stress/anxiety in our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors to ensure we take steps to compassionately process, understand and reduce stress/anxiety during those times. Stress/anxiety, if left heightened for long, may not only negatively impact our physical and mental health, but, also our executive functioning that is responsible for our ability to focus, organize, plan, and make decisions to problem solve which is vital in times of uncertainty. As such, accepting anxiety as part of our evolved humanity - as part of our self-informative guide - and taking steps to maintain anxiety/stress at adaptive levels is central to our optimal functioning and well-being during uncertainty.

5. Frustration Tolerance: Frustration tolerance generally refers to our ability to cope in the face of challenges or when our expectations or goals are not timely met as expected. Building our frustration tolerance in the context of challenges, changes, and overall uncertainty serves to support our self-efficacy, physical and mental health, interactions and relations with ourselves and others, and the achievement of our goals and aspirations. If our frustration tolerance is low, we may easily succumb to heightened stress, anxiety, fear, and anger in the face of uncertainty, which, if experienced long term, inevitably would be detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing.

6. Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves nonjudgmentally accepting, attentively listening to, acknowledging, and processing our deeper moment-to-moment emerging and flowing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Allowing ourselves to be intentionally present with and attentive to the materialization and flow of our inner workings - i.e., our thoughts (i.e., cynical, pessimistic, catastrophizing, ‘what if’ worries), feelings (i.e., apprehension, uneasiness, anxiety, fear, anger), physical sensations (i.e., fatigue, breathing changes, muscle tension, insomnia) - as associated with uncertainty, allows us to acknowledge, process and release the energy and temporary intensity of each of them over time and feel more in control and secure of ourselves accordingly. Deeper self-awareness may keep us informed and grounded further supporting a sense of stability during times of external change and uncertainty. Avoiding or suppressing our highly charged thoughts, emotions, and intense physical sensations may only increase our vulnerability to stress, and anxiety. depression and a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and perhaps avoidance. Remaining present in the here and now additionally provides a rest, temporarily disrupting our possible preoccupation or worry about some nature of future uncertainty.

7. Self-Awareness: Our self-awareness helps us to build trust in our inner truths and wisdom, permitting this wisdom to serve as our compass in connecting with ourselves and living as aligned with our authentic selves and values through mind, body, and spirit, supporting our self-assurance, particularly in the face of uncertainty. Self-awareness helps us to acknowledge and understand the impact uncertainty may have on us at any given time, to acknowledge our needs at the time, and to apply compassionate self-care and coping accordingly to regulate our inner experiences and behaviors and thus to invite mind-body-spirit congruence and harmony.

8. Mindset: Our attitudes, thoughts, and outlook have considerable influence on the nature and degree of our perceived self-worth, self-efficacy, self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and adaptation to uncertainty. You may be familiar with the concepts and attributes of fixed and growth mindsets as coined by the psychologist Dr. Dweck. A fixed mindset pertains to perceiving the self as limited and unchangeable in potential, limiting our openness to learning, giving up easily in despair, viewing personal effort as fruitless, and evading challenges. A growth mindset, on the other hand, pertains to perceiving our personal qualities as elements that may be cultivated and further developed through determination and effort, having a passion for learning, embracing challenges as learning opportunities, being motivated to persevere in the face of setbacks and perceiving effort as essential to improvement and growth. Accordingly, it is important to recognize when our thoughts about our personal qualities and our attitudes about learning, determination, and growth are becoming more pessimistic/cynical when our motivation shifts to helplessness and hopelessness, and when we may be avoiding our responsibility to act in the face of challenges and to shift to a more affirmative mindset.

Similarly, psychiatrists Aaron Beck and David Burns and psychologist Robert Leahy have written about certain negatively biased beliefs or thinking patterns tending to negatively and inaccurately influence our perception of reality, increase our mood vulnerability (i.e., anxiety, sadness), and influence further negative thoughts. I include here some of these thinking patterns they noted. As you read through, consider if any of these patterns may be reflective of some of the thinking you may have experienced during setbacks at times and how they may have impacted your feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors at the time accordingly. A) Perceiving experiences through a dichotomous lens or via opposite extremes - i.e., bad or good - and not acknowledging the greys (i.e., areas open to interpretation). B) Perceiving disproportionate likelihood or possibility - and not considering the probability - of the worst possible outcome occurring. C) Drawing an inaccurate or negative generalized conclusion about a future event as based on a previously negative instance/experience. D) Focusing on and overemphasizing perceived negative information (i.e., disappointments) and minimizing or excluding positive information (i.e., strengths, accomplishments, successes, opportunities). E) Acknowledging positive information (i.e., strengths, accomplishments) but devaluing it, rejecting it, and not embracing it. F) Forming negative interpretations, conclusions/predictions found on minimum/insufficient or no evidence. G) Believing one’s emotions are reflective of fact or reality. H) Using absolutes - always, never - and expecting and demanding that certain undertakings and/or behaviors should or must be fulfilled despite the circumstances of a given situation. I) Accepting disproportionate responsibility for something, without considering all factors involved. J) Assessing behavior/situation as based on personal ideas of fairness.

Expectantly, the above-noted nature of thoughts may negatively impact mood, physical sensations, motivation, and behaviors (i.e., coping, reactions, or responses). As these professionals suggest, the goal is to identify, evaluate the validity, challenge, and shift these patterns of beliefs /perceptions or negative thinking to adaptive thinking. If engaging in such thought patterns in the context of uncertainty, take a moment, calm and compassionately evaluate your inner dialogue using reflective questions. What are my beliefs about uncertainty? Is there evidence to support or not support my belief/thought(s) about this uncertainty? What are all the facts? Am I thinking in black-and-white terms? Am I considering only the possibility and not the probability of a particular possible setback? What are some possible positive outcomes of this uncertainty - i.e., to learn, increase self-efficacy, build confidence and resilience from and defeat the fear of this challenge? How may someone else perceive this uncertainty? The idea is that if we alter our thoughts, we will alter our inner experiences, our motivation, and our response/behavior accordingly. It is essentially about adopting a more intentional, attentive, and compassionately oriented reflective lens to our thinking patterns, compassionately and creatively challenging our pessimistic thinking patterns and replacing them with more optimistic and adaptive thoughts with new adaptive meanings and inciting an adaptive coping and solution-oriented response. As well, you may consider opening your heart and mind to uncertainty possibly unfolding positive unexpected possibilities.

9. Gratitude: Gratitude consists of acknowledging, being appreciative of, and embracing the positive elements in our lives. Gratitude assists our grounding, self and interpersonal connection, and mental and physical health. In times of uncertainty, it is particularly helpful to reflect on the positive stable elements in our lives, from their most basic form to their most privileged.

10. Self-Efficacy: Believing or trusting ourselves that we have the capacity - qualities, abilities, strengths, resiliencies, and competence - to cope with and to learn and grow from anything that may be thrown our way goes a long way. This may assist us in facing and overcoming challenges with wisdom, skills, confidence, courage, and competence and steer away from procrastinating or feeling inadequate, defeat, helplessness, powerlessness, and paralysis in the face of uncertainty.

11. Locus of Control: Focusing and acting on what is within our control in a given circumstance, trusting in our self-efficacy for outcomes not within our control, and finding ways to perceive what is out of our control in an adaptive way permits us to feel reassurance and motivates/activates us for constructive action toward solutions. Our balanced locus of control and self-efficacy may become layers of stability and security in the face of uncertainty. When we come to expect or demand that we be in control of all aspects of uncontrollable circumstances and uncertainty, we are expectantly influencing self-defeat, vulnerability, helplessness, and even paralysis.

12. Rumination & Problem-Solving:Repetitive thoughts/worries of what negativity may possibly befall us in the uncertain future may have us spiraling down a rabbit hole. It’s important to identify these kinds of thoughts/worries when they arise and to release them - i.e. by mindfulness, challenging and constructively shifting these thoughts as noted previously, and/or engaging in activities noted in the next paragraph.

13: Coping: The quality of our coping is vital in our releasing mind-body stress and tension and in reducing our vulnerability to physical and mental health challenges. There are plentiful of activities that we may engage in on a regular basis - and by no means is this an exhaustive list - that may assist our nervous system to calm, and, thus, support our executive functioning (i.e., thinking, planning, organizing) to be optimal, that may serve to empower us and to feel sense of control over our lives and that may aid us to exist to our potential regardless of challenging times: Restorative sleep; adequate nutrition and hydration; consulting with a certified professional as regarding vitamins and other natural health promoting remedies; living aligned with our authentic selves, values and goals to feel content and peace; positive affirmations or prayer; taking rest breaks (in quiet space or nature); listening to calming music; reading; movement or exercise; grounding and relaxation (i.e., breathing, body scan, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, meditation, tai chi, Qi Gong, yoga, massage); aroma therapy; creative endeavors; focusing on and engaging in activities that fulfill sense of purpose and meaning; and socializing, connecting and feeling a sense of belonging with positive, supportive others. Needless to say, all points mentioned throughout this article may be perceived as means of coping with and adapting to uncertainty.

Canadian Crisis Numbers: Canada’s Suicide Crisis Helpline 9-8-8; Talk Suicide Canada 1-833-456-4566; Wellness Together Canada 1-866-585-0445.

References Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive Therapies and Emotional Disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, D. D. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. New York: The Guilford Press.

Trust your profound potential and remain open to life’s uncertainties with hope and optimism,

Revekka Kakoullis

Revekka Kakoullis

M.Sc., Registered Psychologist

Resilience Awakening, Revekka Kakoullis


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