5 Ways to Cope With Uncertainty
According to Dante’s Inferno, Limbo is the first circle of Hell. And you know why: It’s not easy to face an ambiguous future. So lean on these smart strategies, courtesy of experts ranging from a brain scientist to an Olympian.
I tend to think about things analytically, so the more I understand about an unclear situation, the more comfortable I am. When I was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1997, I got my hands on all the reliable research that I could find. At first the information scared me—especially when I saw how many people died from this cancer. But ultimately I was able to turn my fear and concern into a proactive experience. Learning about what I was dealing with helped me feel that I wasn’t spinning out of control. Of course, there’s a fine line between being well-informed and being overwhelmed, so if you’re feeling the latter, you may be better off asking family, friends, or, in my case, a team of doctors to help you get perspective.
Brian Hill is the founder and executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation, based in Newport Beach, California, and the director of the Bruce Paltrow Oral Cancer Fund
Do Downward Dog
When you feel uncertain, your amygdala—an almond-shaped structure located in your temporal lobes—revs you up by signaling to the rest of the brain that a fight-or-flight response might be needed. The prefrontal cortex in turn receives the alarm call from the amygdala and can agree and take action or recognize that there’s no cause for concern and quell the amygdala. But sometimes it isn’t able to control the amygdala on its own. When you feel that anxiety, you need to engage the prefrontal cortex directly. How do you do that? Meditation, therapy, or yoga.
Paul J. Whalen, Ph.d., is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. He gave a TEDx Talk in 2010 entitled The Uncertainty of It All: Brain Lessons for Anxious Times. He lives in New Hampshire.
Ignore the Voice Inside Your Head
In the year leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, I was devastated: My father had died, and I had shattered my kneecap twice. I constantly wondered if I would ever be the same focused athlete I had been in the past. Fortunately there were other people who had more faith in me: My coaches never sugar-coated the challenges I would face but believed I would become a powerful competitor again, which inspired me to continue. When you’re feeling unsure about the road ahead and what you can handle, listen to other people. Sometimes they can see the situation more clearly than you can yourself.
Katie Uhlaender is a professional skeleton slider. She is a two-time Olympian, a two-time World Cup Champion, and the 2012 World Champion in skeleton. She lives in Atwood, Kansas.
Embrace the Chaos
When things don’t go as planned and we’re not sure how they’ll end, we tend to create doomsday scenarios. The uncertainty of a lost job becomes “I’ll never work again.” We see only the loss side of the equation, which is a phenomenon called the negativity bias. Our brains are wired to go there automatically, but we can rewire this impulse. Realize that there is rarely disruption without opportunity. Look for possibilities that arise from uncertainty and act on them. Ask yourself, “Where is the potential here? What doors have opened that once were closed? How can I turn this predicament into something extraordinary?”
Jonathan Fields is the author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance ($11, amazon.com). He is also the founder of the Good Life Project, a movement designed to inspire people to live better. He lives in New York City.
No one likes to wait. And waiting for a momentous life change is more challenging still. I work with prospective parents waiting to adopt, and while they are in limbo, I tell them to live their lives as fully as possible. During a rocky and uncertain time, people need to have something concrete to look forward to: Take that long-awaited backpacking trip. Go to a spa or a sports match with your friends. Instead of fretting about what may be ahead, do something that makes you happy and is just for you. People don’t want to look back, say, 15 years later and remember how they sat around worrying.
Susan Ogden is the domestic infant program director at Adoptions Together, a licensed adoption agency serving Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.