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Dealing With Uncertainty

Note: The following information comes to our University community from counselors at WVU's Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, a lot about the future feels uncertain: your safety, the safety of people you love, your education, jobs, finances, maybe even food security. Experiencing uncertainty can be difficult, even painful. Below are some tips to prevent uncertainty from becoming panic, ranging from addressing practical needs to developing a mindset that can tolerate uncertainty.

gold diagonal Find some routine.

So your normal routine is a thing of the past and you’re now faced with stretches of time possibly punctuated by online classes. Welcome to the new normal. But it’s important to remember that routine is important for human beings. It decreases stress and anxiety and allows important parts of your brain to rest so that you are not on high alert all the time. Being on high alert all the time can deplete your resources and cause anxiety and depression to flare. Considering the baseline of hypervigilance – high alert – around COVID-19, we need to find ways to calm our nervous systems. Creating routine is one way.

What can you do to create a routine for yourself? It doesn’t have to be stringent, and it should probably be flexible enough to withstand changes. Here are some ideas:

  • Begin regulating your sleep schedule by waking up and going to sleep at the same times each day.
  • Create an hour of “culture.” Listen to music, draw or paint, or read.
  • Exercise around the same time each day.
  • Find an hour a couple of times a week to talk with loved ones through a phone call, FaceTime, or Skype.
  • Schedule times for coffee or tea throughout the day or even times just to sit and think.
                            A GIF of checking things off of a list

gold diagonal Make lists.

Lists can help keep you organized when everything feels chaotic. Make practical daily to-do lists and check off your tasks as you complete them. Don’t makes your lists impossibly long though!

There are even other kinds of lists that can be even more powerful. Gratitude lists, for instance, can help you feel connected and enrich your days. Making a list of what you do know as opposed to focusing on what you don’t know (because – let’s face it – there is so much we don’t know right now) can be very grounding. Glennon Doyle describes making the “What I Do Know” list during a major upheaval in her life in her memoir, Love Warrior. Items on her list included what she knew about herself and her capacity to be resilient, what she knew about her spirituality, what gave her life meaning, and what she knew she loved. What do you know about yourself? What makes you resilient? What gives you meaning? What do you love?

gold diagonal Avoid too much media exposure, but stay informed.

It’s about finding a balance. If you notice yourself compulsively checking your phone or computer for the latest news, you might be experiencing an “addiction” to adrenaline rush, aka “anxiety addiction.” Notice how your body feels when you’re constantly checking news or social media, and compare it to how your body feels after exercise or laughing with friends. When you are feeling activated, slow down, get grounded, and take a break from media and conversations about coronavirus.

                   An animated hand comes out of a plug in the wall to remove a cord plugged into the other outlet.

gold diagonal Connect with others.

Quarantine and social distancing might make hugs and friendly gatherings impossible, but there are other ways to connect. FaceTime, Skype, gaming, and social media are all ways to stay virtually connected with others.  Laughter connects people like nothing else, so keep sending memes! 

But sometimes your accessibility to the virtual world might be limited, or you might need a break from electronics. Here are some other ideas.

  • Call someone on the phone.
  • Smile, make eye contact, and say hello when walking past others on the street.
  • Write a letter to someone, mail it, and ask for a response. You’ll be anticipating the response, which is a mood lifter.
  • Volunteer at organizations that need phone staff.

gold diagonal Engage in self-care and, more importantly, self-compassion.

By now, you’ve heard the phrase “self-care” a few thousand times and seen a thousand different ways you can engage in self-care. Pick your favorites right now! And add to that: make sleep, nutrition, and exercise priorities.

Even more important, however, than self-care is self-compassion. Actually, self-compassion is the most critical element of self-care. Having compassion for yourself includes allowing yourself to experience your emotions without judgment (it’s ok to have big feelings!). It includes forgiving yourself for mistakes and treating yourself gently when you are tired, sad, sick, or scared. Above all else, work on self-compassion.

                   A GIF of an animated person looks at themselves in the mirror. The reflection then jumps out of the mirror to hug the person.

gold diagonal Use faith or spiritual practices.

If you have a faith or spiritual practice, now is the time to engage with it. Faith and spirituality are protective factors that strengthen mental health and resilience. Why? Because they offer people hope, meaning, and connection – all essential during times of uncertainty. While churches, meditation groups, and 12-step groups are closing their doors to adhere to social distancing measures, there is still prayer, meditation, study and reflection. There are also online faith and spirituality groups popping up, so keep your eye out for those.

gold diagonal Practice tolerating uncertainty.

Finding ways to create certainty, like instituting routine, for example, can reduce anxiety. But these practices work best in tandem with learning to tolerate uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty has grown in the United States over the past decades as our society seeks outcome control more and more while simultaneously becoming more isolative. Learning to tolerate uncertainty is like developing a muscle, and just like developing a muscle, there are certain exercises that can build your ability to live well in uncertain times. The plan: cut back on certainty-seeking behaviors and gradually increase your exposure to uncertainty. Do this with appropriate supports in place, like friends, family, or therapists who understand the importance of this practice. 

Begin small and look at your daily habits. What are your certainty-seeking behaviors?  Is it checking your phone every few minutes for information or communication? Is it consulting the Internet every time you don’t know the answer to a question? Can you limit your information seeking a few times a day and sit in your own body? Can you learn to wait rather than expecting certainty right now?

Or is your certainty-seeking behavior one of avoidance? Do you “check out” when you feel the dread of anxiety – with shopping, food, TV, social media, gaming, alcohol and other drugs? Not that these things are bad in themselves, but if you are using them not to feel, your ability to handle difficult, uncertain situations becomes underused and weakens. Can you practice feeling your feeling before reaching for something to deaden it? Get curious about your inner experience and see if you can identify it. 

Uncertainty and anxiety are part of our experience as human beings. They might have something to teach us. Practice waiting, silence, resting, and identifying your experience without judgment, even if it is uncomfortable. This will grow your uncertainty tolerance muscle. And continue reaching out to others when you need support.

                   A GIF of silver balloons that say "It's OK"

gold diagonal Get help if you need it.

As of March 25, the Carruth Center staff began working remotely for the health and safety of our students, employees, and community. We will only offer on-site services for those in immediate crisis or danger. However, we will continue to offer mental health care through various platforms depending on your location and need. Please utilize our services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the main Carruth Center, satellite centers exist at the Health Sciences Center and for our student athletes. For students utilizing care from those centers, please reach out to your counselor for more information.

If you are in West Virginia but outside of the Morgantown area and are in need of urgent services, please contact your clinician directly or visit our website.

If you are currently outside of West Virginia and would like access to counseling services, it is also important to contact your clinician. They will talk with you about options for support. One of these options may be utilizing an online system called “My Student Support.” 

If you are experiencing a psychological emergency during operational hours (8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), call 304-293-4431 and ask to speak to a clinician. Our emergency after-hours services (304-293-4431, extension 1) will be available as well as the Crisis Text Line. To use the Crisis Text Line, text WVU to 741741 for 24/7 support.

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