Coping With Uncertainty, As Told By A Psychiatrist

If there’s anything we can be certain about, it’s that 2021 has really embraced that whole ‘shuffle’ function. We’ve moved through the feel good pop of a fresh set of resolutions and then right on into the Delta variant without skipping a beat. There’ve been the lows, and lows, of the pandemic; a mixture of death metal meets gospel meets ‘songs to clean the house to’ (and clean it again when you remember you can’t leave said house, let’s face it). To cap it all off there’s climate change, ongoing political turmoil across the globe, and what a rollercoaster of a musical shuffle-fest that’s been. I’ve just refreshed the numbers though, and it looks like we’re about to finish on a feel good break up banger even Taylor herself would be proud of.

All up, if there’s anything to be certain about it’s that 2021 is synonymous with uncertainty. Regardless of your music taste or whether you’d actually admit to half those playlists you shuffle through, uncertainty packs a punch when it comes to our mental health. So in the spirit of putting the song choice back in our hands, here’s why that is and, vitally, what we can do about it.

Certainty & Your Mind

Change, movement, loss, disappointment, rejection and confusing amounts of baffling red and blue diagrams. Uncertainty frames a major player in why all of these things are more than just a little bit stressful when it comes to the brain.

Much of our psychology and the neurological mechanisms behind it come down to an in-built need to predict and protect. From a survival standpoint that’s important, and it’s a key to our evolution. The ability to live within a routine (broadly speaking), predict what’s around the corner and feel we’ve solved our way out of a problem safely before are all states that have the brain and body feeling good.

A brain that knows where it is and what might be coming next is one that can let the body relax and do its thing. We sleep better, digest our food properly and feel generally more relaxed. Mentally, the frontal lobes (where our problem solving abilities, higher processing and emotional control occur) are well and truly plugged in when things feel more certain. We tend to think clearer, feel better and react smarter. Psychologically, the routines, people, places and purpose we call our daily life also come to strongly frame up our sense of identity and future projection. A mind with certainty knows who they are and where they’re going. And when it comes to mental health, that’s some Bon Iver level chill out tune stuff.

Uncertainty & Your Mind

Flip certainty on its head, and our fight or flight system well and truly activates. Faced with difficult circumstances, significant change and unclear outcomes, the brain moves into survival mode quick smart. Blood flow and energy to areas of the body switch to prioritise fighting for our lives or getting the hell out of there, pronto, and the mind becomes more rigid, automatic and emotional.

This is where the 2021 playlist really comes into its own, when it comes to the impacts we’ve seen on mental health. A brain presented with sudden change and significant uncertainty is akin to one with all the alarm bells blaring. We’re more likely to be tense and anxious, sleeping poorly, easy to anger or more emotional than we might usually be. Faced with a sudden new way of life or feeling unable to predict what might come next, the mind literally gets knocked for six. Those psychological factors of self and future get the shake up too. When these things shift it’s not just the brain and body that take a beating, it’s our sense of self and the future we had laid out for us in mind that also nose dive.

A significant and not uncommon reaction to a key stressor, loss or change is known in psychiatry as an ‘Adjustment Disorder’. This is where the brain’s reaction to uncertainty and change ramps way up, and symptoms similar to depression, significant anxiety and even massive shifts in behaviour (like risk taking or anger) start to impair our ability to get through.

Hitting Back on Uncertainty

Taking the tunes off shuffle can be easier said than done when we’re faced with significant change and uncertainty, but it’s not impossible to choose the next song. Facing uncertainty and looking after our mental health means’ acknowledging the natural waves that come from what we’re going through as well as grounding ourselves in what we can control. Research (as well as my own clinical experience helping people through) shows that simple tools can help buffer the impact change and uncertainty have on our mind.

Listening In

Fighting uncertainty and change can be a key factor in actually ramping up the negative impact it has on our mind. A tip can be to step back and acknowledge what uncertainty is present when we’re going through a tough time – and, vitally, that it’s normal to feel this way. A mind that can acknowledge it is tired, stressed and low because of an 7280 day lockdown or the fact that those damn election polls just don’t make sense is one that’ll move through those mental strains better.

Add to Playlist

One of the big reasons uncertainty is tough mentally is because it leaves our brain’s ability to predict safety, security and sense of self off balance. It can thus help to actually sit down and play out what future outcomes and scenarios might look like – good or bad. Some people find that writing these down can be helpful, while chewing them over with a mate or (better yet) running through things with a professional are other ways of making things feel clearer even if they’re still uncertain.

On Repeat

Routine is (obviously, I know) one of the first to fall by the wayside when uncertainty strikes. However when times feel uncertain and out of control it can help hugely to take control of what we can. Lock in simple things where you can like a solid bedtime routine, a daily walk or workout or regular meals. Write down your day and plan the week (even if there’s not much on it) so the brain feels there’s steady ground underfoot. Taking action and standing in our values within our family or local community can similarly make uncertain issues feel grounded in a greater sense of control.

The Throwback

Psychologically, change and uncertainty hit us hard because they hit who we are and where we thought we were going just as hard too. Those with a strong sense of their values, worth and connection often weather change and uncertainty better, so sit down and write these things out. Who we are even if the job is gone. What life means overall even when that thing we thought we had fails. What there is still to be thankful for. Write down the parts of you that remain unchanged even with change and try a daily practice gratitude by writing down things to be thankful for on the daily.