Uncertainty – kryptonite for humans

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Uncertainty – kryptonite for humans

Be aware, now is the time to take care of your mental health

| By Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, PhD, Sport and Performance Psychology | March 24, 2020 |


The spread of the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, increases everyday and it seems like it is getting closer and closer to us, and in some countries it is likely that it has already knocked on our door, or the door of a family member or acquaintance. In these moments where the situation is almost surreal, it is important to – in the same way that we are trying to avoid touching our face or remembering to wash our hands more frequently, and taking care of our physical health – be very aware and take care of our mental health.

If you are feeling stressed, anxious, afraid, panicked, hopeless, or even numb, you are not alone. Everyone, in their own way, is trying to deal with this situation, and our thoughts, emotions and feelings may not be the most pleasant right now. We are clearly facing one of the biggest crises in history.

Uncertainty: the kryptonite of humans

Apart from the obvious problems that come with big crises, from a psychological point of view, the biggest threat to our mental health is the great amount of uncertainty we are dealing with right now. Due to the nature of crises, they provide us with thousands of questions and very few answers. We feel almost handcuffed: everything seems unpredictable and very few things are under control. In short, we are full of uncertainty and this may be our kryptonite – it is the Achilles’ heel of humankind.

Uncertainty is undoubtedly one of the most difficult experiences humans have to face. In psychology, several classic studies have been done with rodents where they have been given electric shocks while their stress levels are being measured. As expected, receiving a shock generates a high level of stress, but it is surprising to see how the stress levels decrease when the animals can anticipate or control the timing of when the shocks will arrive – even if the shocks are of the same intensity.

Studies have repeatedly shown that feeling a shock and the uncertainty of the possibility of an electric shock, produce just about the same levels of stress. And the same applies to us, as has been demonstrated by a study conducted in 2016 with human beings in which the same responses seen in rodents were investigated. The authors of this study indicated that “it turns out that it is much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or would not.”

We could replace the word “electric shock” with “symptoms,” “contagion,” or “quarantine,” and we would know exactly what the researchers were referring to. Waiting, lack of knowledge, lack of control affects us a lot, and this is what the current pandemic is making us face day after day. However, the battle is not lost – there are ways in which we can deal with lack of control and high levels of uncertainty.

Controlling the controllable

When it comes to worrying, our minds have gone through a plethora of negative scenarios while we repeatedly asked ourselves the “what if…” questions. And this is not bad, it is totally natural and completely expected given the circumstances. But we must stop and make sure it is a productive worry. One of the key words of studies that have been done on the effects of uncertainty is control. Having control, or the idea of it, makes a big difference in the way different situations affect us. In the studies with rodents and humans, a sense of control has helped them significantly in reducing their stress levels. Although this is not easy in a crisis, we should try to repeat to ourselves the mantra that we tend to use a lot in the field of performance psychology: control the controllable.

As much as we would like to, we cannot control what the authorities are doing or not doing, we cannot control if the numbers of cases are high or low, the constant flow of news, etc. But we can focus on what we can control. Just to name a few examples of things that are within our control: 1) taking action to reduce the risk of contagion for ourselves and our loved ones; 2) carry out activities that help us get out of the cycles of worry; and 3) look for news sources that are credible, that help us plan instead of worry.

Another word for worry is preoccupied, and as its name implies, we should begin to pre-occupy as much as we can. In other words, we need to focus on specific action-oriented thoughts, emotions and behaviors, making sure that they do not become obsessions. This means not simply watching the news or statistics over and over again, or repeatedly going back to that “what if…” thinking, without actively looking for a concrete action on how to better manage this situation following the authorities’ recommendations. Anything that doesn’t have a specific purpose – providing us with a little more control in these turbulent times – is a waste of time and energy, and we’re not in a moment where we can afford to give ourselves that luxury.

It is social distancing, not social isolation

Making these changes is certainly something that takes time; it is a process that many of us have not faced before. It is and will continue to be a long and difficult process, but we can do it with everyone’s help. Perhaps one of the most difficult things at the moment is coping with the feeling that we have to face this on our own, because we must keep our distance from other humans to reduce the spread of the virus. However, it is important that we do not confuse social distancing with social isolation. On the contrary, we must be creative and look for new ways to stay in close contact with others. What makes us humans is this inter-human bond – the interactions – and that must continue and especially with those who need it most, just not face to face. We are dealing with this together, and we can all help each other, and if you need help: do not hesitate to ask for it!

We are part of this great ecosystem called life, and we are fighting together. This time we are not fighting shoulder to shoulder, but a meter or more away. Rest assured that we can help each other in this process by giving ourselves a little more control and making some sense of this situation that has changed us – a very weird and critical situation that is asking us to bring out the best in each one of us, not only for ourselves but also for others.

– Published on March 24, 2020

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