This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak. An article specific to COVID and anxiety is here.
How do you cope with not-knowing?
In a world where information is available at our finger tips, there will still be times when an internet search engine can’t give you the answers you need.
If you’ve found yourself in a situation that develops into, or exacerbates, anxiety you’ll understand the difficulty created by uncertainty.
Our fears and worries rise when we’re trying to deal with what we don’t know and, to counteract the feeling, we may try to control or run away from it. As Pema Chödrön says, “In the face of anything we don’t like, we automatically try to escape.”
There will be occasions where taking control might mean positive action, identifying helpful steps forward, or developing goals to help you get where you want to be. But options can feel limited when you’re dealing with the unknown.
We might engage in less positive action, trying to influence what people think or how they behave towards us – especially if they don’t share our sense of urgency.
We can spend hours staring at our phones or laptops waiting. We might keep calling or messaging someone who said they’ll reply. We might insist someone does something before they’re ready, even though we know rationally this pushing might make no difference, or not help, at all.
When we don’t get what we need in the time frame we need it, we might try to affect or force something that just can’t be controlled. This can create more anxiety, and for all concerned.
Whether it’s not knowing what to say or do, or waiting for news of an outcome of a situation, uncertainty might leave you feeling vulnerable, frustrated and afraid.
We’re always looking for a permanent reference point, and it doesn’t exist. Nothing is pin-down-able the way that we’d like.Pema Chödrön, Taking the Leap
When our mind feels like it’s in a tailspin – spiralling with “what if’s…” – it can get crowded very quickly, feeling like we have no room to think straight. So what can we do?
The first step to managing difficult circumstances or change, can be knowing how and where it’s affecting you, and considering what you can – and can’t – control.
When you recognise you can’t control the wait or the outcome (maybe it relies on someone else making a decision that can’t be rushed, or them calling you back), it can help to create a plan. I call this a “Not-Knowing Plan”.
The purpose of the Not-Knowing Plan is to help you manage the time between what’s taking place and the outcome; the period of waiting, that many describe as “being in limbo.” So the awareness starts with recognising what you’re feeling and considering “what can help me with this that’s healthy, whilst I wait?”
It can help to identify helpfully what you can and can’t control and, where you can’t control something, to come up with a strategy for coping that remains helpful and healthy. One way is an adapted version of the RAIN technique, popularised by Tara Brach (you may wish to read this first before trying the activity, and only do this if it feels helpful).
Here’s an example: You’re waiting for some test results or the outcome of a job interview.
R – Recognise the feeling: you might feel anything from anxious or worried, disappointed or angry. Label it in your mind for what it is – a feeling – without getting caught up in the storyline of why. Suspend judgement for a moment, about what’s caused the feeling or why, and label it factually for what you recognise it to be – eg “this feels like worry/fear/frustration”.
A – Acknowledge the feeling, allow it to exist for a moment if you can; give yourself permission to feel. We know that suppressing feelings rarely works for us long-term. Also acknowledge what you can do, or have already done, that’s within your control. For example, you might have asked the person you’re waiting to hear from when you’ll get a call. Then acknowledge and appreciate what you’ve done to take positive action in this situation. If you want to, say the words (in your mind or out loud) “I’ve done all I can do in this moment”. This is important, to recognise you’re doing all you can constructively to help yourself and the situation.
I – Investigate: See if you can get to the heart of what’s really going on for you in this period of uncertainty, and again try this non-judgementally. Is what you’re feeling really anger, or is it fear? Is what you’re feeling actually annoyance, or is it disappointment? If it’s hard to get in touch with the feeling, see if you can identify where you are storing this feeling in your body. It could be in your belly, neck or somewhere else. Only do this if it feels helpful.
N – Nurture: while you’re waiting for an answer or navigating this period of uncertainty, focus on a form of nurturing your body, through relaxation. You could try activities which help activate your body’s natural relaxation response (the opposite of fight or flight). Non- judgement is also key, to be kind to yourself especially, whilst you find your way forward at this time in your life.
This isn’t a distraction activity, because you’re acknowledging that you’re feeling something and, instead of pushing it away, allowing it to exist while you work on calming your body and mind.
You’re not trying to change anything, except control your responses helpfully and proactively when things feel difficult.
Consider Mindful Breathing
Here’s a mindfulness activity you could also try when you feel tension rising:
- Make yourself comfortable, sitting upright in a chair.
- Place your hands in your lap and keep both feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your head upright and if it feels safe to do so close our eyes.
- Bring your awareness to your feet, and feel connected to being in the world right now.
- Then bring your awareness to your breath, just acknowledging that you’re breathing and sink in to its natural rhythm, observing air moving in and out of your body. Notice how your chest rises and falls, or how your belly moves in and out as you breathe.
- Then, as you continue to breathe naturally, repeat the following mantra in your mind if it feels helpful: “As I sit with not knowing, may I remain at ease”.
Spend a couple of minutes doing this if you want to, and remember to acknowledge your feelings, whether it’s anxiety, fear or something else. All feelings are valid, it’s what you do with them that counts.
If you find paying attention to your breath difficult, you can use something else as the object of your attention: the sound of birds singing or trying some mindful colouring. You might also find counselling useful as a way of managing uncertainty, and engaging in self-care is essential when faced with difficult situations or decisions.
Your plan is your own so figure out what positive steps you can take that you feel will help. Remember it can be useful to talk about how you feel, so reach out to people you trust and explain to them how they can help be part of your Not Knowing Plan. The key is to focus your attention to something helpful you can do, to maintain your wellbeing, whilst you wait to find out what’s going on.
Here is my video on a self-soothing activity that may also help.
Note to the reader: This article refers to the nature of anxiety and how we may sometimes attempt to control the outcomes of certain situations. This is not the same as Coercive and Controlling behaviour – when a person tries to control another in damaging ways – which is a form of domestic abuse. If you or someone you know may be being controlled or coerced by someone take a look at this list of organisations which may be able to help.
Always speak to your doctor if you’re worried about your mental health.
©️ Copyright Delphi Ellis, updated January 2021