Lessons from the fog (coping with uncertainty)
When I took my first glimpse of outside this morning and saw the landscape consumed by thick fog, my own garden a faded version of itself, my reaction was to feel excited by the mystery of it and a keen desire to get outside propelled me through my morning routine.
I made a coffee to take on my walk and headed out, captivated by the dew dazzled cobwebs and glistening leaves that emerged from the grey. As my daily walks are a part of my mindfulness practice I was noticing how my environment was making me feel - joyful, excited, curious - and recognised that it was the fog and it's qualities of mystery and hiddenness that evoked these feelings in me. It was the uncertainty of it, of literally not being able to see what's around the corner, that I enjoyed about it. It occurred to me that uncertainty doesn't always make me feel this way, and that not knowing is a major struggle for many of my clients, family and friends as we navigate our way through the foggy terrain that is 2020.
My walk inspired me to think deeply about uncertainty; what it can bring up for us and how we can learn to cope - or even thrive - in it.
Why uncertainty is so hard
It's very normal to struggle with uncertainty; it's important not be hard on yourself for finding it difficult. Feeling that we know what's going on and that the future will turn out pretty much as we expect gives us a sense of stability and security. Having an idea of what will happen next helps us to prepare and do any useful planning. Not knowing can leave us feeling anxious about what to expect yet unable to act - a horrible limbo type experience of worry and powerlessness.
First, let's understand what's going on when we are faced with uncertainty. Human brains are not really built for it; ambiguity can be perceived as a threat. Just consider this study in which research participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock felt far more anxious and agitated than participants who believed they were definitely going to receive the shock.
Uncertainty can leave our nervous systems in a state of distress; fight, flight or freeze mode. It's important to know that you don't get to consciously choose these reactions, so you can't blame yourself for these impulses. though you do have responsibility over how to manage them. Recognising when you have left your 'window of tolerance' for uncertainty and knowing how to soothe your nervous system and come back to calm are pretty essential skills. My 'Guide To Feeling On Top of Shit' might help.
Experiencing big life changes, as ,many people are doing during the pandemic, can leave you feeling lost, low and strange. It's not easy to have things you relied upon for your sense of self and self worth are taken away or drastically changed. The opportunity for growth here is in uncovering your conditions of worth; messages we have internalised about what we need to be/do in order to be 'good enough'. Whilst this work is certainly uncomfortable (most personal development work is I'm afraid!) it can ultimately be very empowering as you redefine what makes you worthy and what's really important to you in life. It's easy to not think about these things when we're just going through the motions of 'normal' daily life without much space to think. Uncertainty can get us all existential and that can feel destabilising.
But just because we're not wired for uncertainty doesn't mean we can't learn how to cope better with it. Here are some of my tried and tested tools & techniques; take what feels helpful to you.
Coping with uncertainty
1. Return to the present moment. When the future is foggy we need to ground ourselves in what IS happening. There is certainty to be found in this very moment. Can you feel the ground under your feet? Notice the breath in your body. Take note of everything that is fact in your experience right now; what you can see, touch, smell and hear.
2. Focus on one day at a time. When looking down the foggy street this morning, if I didn't know the road well it would have been impossible to navigate my whole route. The only way, in these situations, is to NOT focus on the end destination or even the whole journey but the single next step. Life is made of moments, after all.
3. Reframing uncertainty - when you catch yourself thinking of the unknown as bad, see if you can cultivate a sense of mystery or excitement in the unknown. Of course, this is a lot easier when going on a foggy walk then when your employment status is uncertain, for example, but it's important to at least recognise that the uncertain doesn't necessarily mean bad, it literally just means uncertain. Just as it's possible things won't go the way you'd like, it's possible that they will turn out just fine too. What opportunities might be waiting for you? What might go on that blank page? What could go right?
"The future is uncertain, but this uncertainty is the very heart of human creativity" - Ilya Prigogine, chemist & Nobel laureate.
4. Noticing the positive; simple but not always easy. Like many things learning to notice what is good, joyful and pleasant is a practice. Our brains have a natural negative bias that we need to work at to create balance, it's effort but it really is worth it. On my foggy walk I found the grey atmosphere actually made the bright colours of plants stand out more. We can use the dark moments to create a helpful contrast which can highlight joy when it does come along.
5. Finding certainty internally - when the external world is topsy-turvy it can create a lot of anxiety, especially if our early care givers were unreliable; it can being up a lot of difficult feelings. Finding a sense of solidity and centeredness within yourself can be of huge value. How do we do this? For me this is what regular meditation and walks in nature provide. The next 'tip' is a follow on from this...
6. Act on your values. To do this you first need to know what your values are! This is something you can research and journal about yourself or get support with a coach or counsellor. Knowing your values can help you make decisions at a time when there's a lot of conflicting opinions and information overload. If you know what is important to you and act on that, it can create a sense of inner certainty that's much needed when externally things are very confusing.
7. Acknowledge, allow and express your feelings. I know this is a lot in one little sentence, and again it's a practice not something you will do perfectly (no such things anyhow) all the time. Feeling of worry, loss, anger...are all very valid when going through painful experiences. There's endless ways of doing this and resources and support if you're not sure where to begin. Some suggestions of things that work for me and my clients are: speaking to someone you trust, practicing mindfulness, journaling, creative activity, breathwork and somatic movement such as yoga.
8. Know that 'this too shall pass' - as the saying goes "the only constant thing is change". Even when it feels like lockdown is dragging on, know that each day can bring something new and we're very much in the middle of a story that we just don't know the end of. The fog felt pretty permanent when I walked in it this morning, but in the time it's taken to write this blog and see my clients, the sky is a very different picture.
9. Treat yourself and others with compassion. It's a simple concept but one we too often forget. Remember we are going through a global crisis (#unprecedented) and everyone is just doing their best to get by, including you. Compassion takes both wisdom and courage; cultivating and practicing it is a brave and honourable thing to do.
10. Reassurance - you have survived 100% of difficult things thus far. You have probably faced uncertainty before and overcome it. You are stronger than you think.
11 . Focus on what you can control. Paying too much attention to what others are doing or things that you can't influence is an easy way to invite more anxiety into your life. How you respond and what choices you make - even when these are limited - are always in your zone of control. Learning to let go isn't easy, but this is another opportunity to grow through this experience. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself while you work through this.
All of these tips are really about building resilience and learning to tolerate the uncomfortable. Even when things are going pear shaped, it is possible to still be OK. Anxiety, hope, sadness and joy can all exist at the same time. A beautiful line I read recently was: "we must learn to sleep on the pillow of doubt."
I am sending anyone reading this a whole ton of compassion. You are doing beautifully. Keep going.