Kind Thoughts Strategy: How to Become Tolerant of the Unknown

In March, I asked on social networks what was the most difficult for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. I got more than 100 answers and found that in many ways people have the same problem: the unknown.

I decided to recall why uncertainty causes so much stress and anxiety and such unpleasant feelings? And how can you strengthen your ability to cope with the unknown during such stressful times as the COVID-19 pandemic?

The soil suddenly disappeared from beneath our feet, and uncertainty rages around. People have health problems, they lose their jobs, are forced to put up with isolation and loneliness, worry about loved ones, read the news and wonder when everything will normalize. Hard times. And alas, it will not be possible to send a request to Google “when will COVID-19 disappear?“ and get the final answer (for now). If it is impossible to gain confidence today, then it’s time to find other options.

A 2017 study showed that doctors who were more tolerant of uncertainty and uncertainty were less likely to experience work-related stress. When they were faced with a clinical situation that did not have clear answers, those who tolerated uncertainty better were less likely to experience anxiety, anxiety, and were stuck in the unknown.

Therefore, it is probably better to learn to accept the unknown than to seek confidence. Let’s see why uncertainty causes stress and anxiety, and then look at strategies that help increase tolerance for the unknown.

Why suspense can cause stress and anxiety

A study published in 2016 showed that the unknown causes even more stress than the inevitable pain. In the study, participants were asked to play a computer game, which required them to turn over stones under which snakes could be hidden. If a snake appeared under the stone, the participants received a slightly painful electric shock. If there was no snake, then nothing happened.

As the participants understood the essence of the game and the uncertainty became smaller, their stress level also decreased (physical indicators of stress, such as pupil dilatation and sweat, were measured). However, the rules of the game were constantly changing, which led to fluctuations in the unknown and higher levels of stress. ”It turns out that it’s far worse to not know whether you will get an electric shock than to know that it is definitely yes or no,” says lead author of the study, Archie de Berker.

Honestly, I could not understand what was happening. Why do people experience more stress due to the unknown than because of the inevitable pain?

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand why this might be true. A few months ago, I was sitting at the airport, and I had to catch one flight, and then on the second, connecting. The first flight was postponed, and I became more and more nervous waiting for the news, wondering if I could catch the connecting flight.

In the end, the departure time appeared on the screen, and it became clear that I did not have time. And although the news was bleak, I still felt better knowing and accepting them than being in the dark.

Sometimes knowledge of a negative result is better than the unknown. Knowing what the result will be, you can begin to plan and prepare for it. It gives a feeling of strength and control. You do not feel paralyzed by the thoughts of “what if?”, But you can make decisions and measures.

The question is, can you strengthen your ability to cope with the unknown when it is impossible to get specific answers?

The ability to put up with the unknown is a skill that can be developed with the help of various strategies, such as practicing mindfulness and empathy, believing in one’s ability to cope with uncertainty and gaining comfort with a particular regime.

How to increase tolerance for the unknown

Learn to empathize

Your mind is actively working to minimize obscurity. You need solutions, not questions hanging in the air. Therefore, it can be difficult not to constantly think about the unknown and not to try to find solutions (especially in stressful situations).

It is understood that uncertainty can cause feelings of frustration, challenge, and inconvenience. That is why compassion is so important. Do not judge yourself for being stressed in difficult times, but acknowledge that it is normal to feel that way. You can choose other strategies for taking care of yourself – give yourself time to experience emotions and more often do things that bring joy and meaning to your life.

The more you take care of yourself, the less likely you will feel shame or think badly of yourself because you are currently experiencing stress. Instead, support yourself to be less upset and develop your ability to bear the unknown in the future.

Soft-touch is a self-empowerment strategy you can try in times of uncertainty. Studies have shown that low-intensity skin stimulation, such as light touch and warmth, promotes the release of oxytocin (a hormone associated with increased levels of well-being and less stress).

Also, try to maintain good thoughts in yourself, such as “I am safe and in order” or “I deserve sympathy at this time of uncertainty and anxiety.“ It may seem silly or strange at first, but it is an easy way to show empathy for yourself in difficult times.

Take Awareness Seriously

Awareness is the practice of being present in the present moment, the willingness to show curiosity and not make judgments. Let’s see how it can be used in everyday life and how mindfulness can be useful in times of uncertainty.

Scenario 1 (not an example of awareness)

You sit down to drink morning coffee or tea. At this time, you browse through social networks and see more and more messages about COVID-19. You put off the phone in dismay, and then sit in silence and think about everything that might still go wrong. You wonder what will happen if one of your loved ones finds a virus.

Stress intensifies when you try to understand when everything will start to bounce back – and you cannot find the exact answer. You are worried about how your life will change next month. And in the next six months. And six months after that.

The questions “what if” (what if I lose my job and can’t pay for the apartment? What if I get sick? What if I can’t find the medicine? Etc.) they develop into a feeling of helplessness and disappointment.

You understand that you drank all the coffee on autopilot and hardly tasted at least one sip.

Scenario 2 (an example of awareness)

You sit down to drink morning coffee or tea. While you are drinking, you consciously pay attention to your feelings. You notice the aroma of coffee or tea, take deep breaths that help you evaluate the aroma, and also feel calmer.

Instead of taking the phone, you commit yourself to live a moment here and now. You look out the window and notice the color of the sky, the birds on the trees and the breeze. You savor every sip and feel the warmth of the mug in your hands.

When the thoughts of “what if” appear in your head, you gently return to the present moment, tuning in to different things that you can see, hear, feel, taste and smell.

Why are mindfulness practices important?

In times of uncertainty, mindfulness helps relieve stress and frees you from thinking about everything that may happen in the future. Instead of provoking more stress and anxiety, you simply value the present moment and do not try to look for answers.

A study published in 2019 found that students who had a higher level of tolerance for suspense and awareness were less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. According to the researchers, “awareness helped them change their perspective, rethink the situation. Rethinking is a meta-mechanism that helps people break away from everyday dramas, take a step to the side and just look at them from the side. “

Awareness not only makes it possible to disconnect from useless thoughts about the future but also stimulates psychological processes that help cope with stress and anxiety.

Most likely, you will not be able to abandon social networks and news, and you do not need to do this. But you can approach them consciously. Set a timer to limit the time you spend doing this activity or reduce the list of visited sites or channels.

Take your own approach

Be firm in your belief that you can deal with uncertainty. Studies have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps reduce sensitivity to the unknown. Co-author of the study, James Boswell, suggested that using CBT, patients learn to “challenge claims that the unknown is bad, that it needs to be avoided and it inevitably leads to negative consequences.“ Patients are encouraged to increase their tolerance for the unknown gradually, coping with any associated stress and anxiety. In the end, patients realize that they have the ability to deal with uncertainty (and this can help alleviate stress and anxiety even more).

Whenever you notice that you are fixated on your inability to bear the unknown, try to challenge it. Recognize that your thoughts are not always accurate. Perhaps more useful to think like this:

It is also important to believe in your ability to cope with any outcome, no matter what this period ends.

Uncertainty is especially frightening if you do not believe that you can cope with its potentially negative consequences. There are two easy ways to handle this.

  1. Encourage an optimistic view of things and try not to spend too much time thinking about potentially negative results. Positive thoughts can be stimulated by the practice of gratitude, for example, writing down every day ten things for which you are grateful.
  2. You can also reflect on your past experiences with negative events as you demonstrated your ability to handle this. You may have contacted a support service or mental health professional. Perhaps you took the time to take care of yourself. Or maybe you even found the courage to get up and adapt to a difficult situation (maybe even get new skills in the process).

You can go further if you want: imagine the worst-case scenario for a situation that bothers you. What happens if you give up. Think about what needs to be done to prevent this from happening. When you have a rational understanding that it is possible to cope with the situation, you will begin to get out of the emotional swamp “I can not cope with this.”

Set the mode to increase comfort

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), in times of uncertainty, it’s useful to focus on things you can control. Set your self-care mode and prioritize. Eat nutritious food at the same time every day and set an alarm in the morning. Continue training, even if you can’t go to the gym – you can use a special application.

Determine what can calm and comfort you in stressful times. Find a balance between activities that support good physical, social, and emotional health.

You can choose what suits you best! Just try to be more realistic when drawing up your schedule, and write it down so you don’t forget. It might be wise to create a daily to-do list.

When you feel depressed by the unknown, and negative thoughts spin in your head, pay attention to what you can control: your actions (even minor ones). Perform each of them consciously, fully living every moment and accepting the days as they are. We hope that over time, the uncertainty that you experience will begin to dissipate, or you will simply better adapt to it.

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