A Journaling Exercise For When Everything Feels Uncertain
'Everything is just so uncertain.'
Whether I’m talking to friends, my partner, my therapist, my dog—those words have quickly become my pandemic catchphrase.
And as I enter week eight of being isolated, it’s the Not Knowing that’s felt especially tough these past two months: the Not Knowing of how this will evolve, who it will impact in my life, how it will end, what life will look like afterwards.
And I know I’m not alone.
Right now, we’re all facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty—and most of us are struggling with it.
When surveyed, 70% of Shine members said “uncertainty about the future” is having the biggest negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic.
Uncertainty’s power rests in the special way it can trigger anxiety in our brains. Unlike physical threats, we can’t get away from uncertainty—so we try and think our way out of it instead.
“What our brains tell us to do to get away from uncertainty is to try and eliminate it by mentally analyzing the situation we are uncertain about,” Michael Stein, Psy.D., explains in Psychology Today. “That's what worry behavior is.”
Worry is our attempt to make sense of uncertainty.
Because sitting in a state of “not knowing” is uncomfortable. Scary. Unsettling.
But at the same time: Constantly worrying about what we don’t know is exhausting. Draining. And, more often than not, pointless.
Because the only certain thing about most uncertainties is that they will remain uncertain, no matter how much we worry or try to plan for scenario A through Z.
So, how do we balance our need for knowing when we’re in the face of so much Not Knowing?
It’s all about increasing our tolerance for uncertainty.
There’s no quick fix for this, but I’ve found taking the worries out of my head and putting them onto paper is a helpful place to start.
Here’s an exercise my therapist recommended to me that I’m leaning on during these uncertain times.
Step 1: Write down all the uncertain questions you’re trying to 'fix' or 'solve.'
Give yourself time and space to just brain dump all those questions onto a page.
And I mean every single one of them—the ones about tomorrow, next week, next month, a year from now. Try to collect all those anxious uncertainties that ping-pong through your brain all day—without judgment.
Step 2: Highlight the questions that you can or need to answer now.
There will most likely be some questions on your list that you have the info to answer now or need to answer now. Make those your first priority.
A question you have the info to answer might be how your state or city is doing (shout-out to the local news outlets) and what local officals see on the horizon. Or: How the place where you work is planning on tackling the next few weeks.
A question you need to answer might be something that impacts you now or in the next few days—questions like when will I return to my home (if you’re isolating elsewhere) or how can I navigate being with my family while I’m working the front lines.
Take comfort in the fact that while everything might feel uncertain, there are still some answers to be found during this time.
Also: Use this moment to notice what it feels like when you can create some certainty, versus what it feels like when your brain might be spinning its wheels on something that just has to remain uncertain. Notice the difference.
Step 3: Circle the questions that you can’t answer now.
In this final step, highlight in another color all those questions you can’t answer right now.
Those ones about what life will look like three months from now, the next time you can do karaoke with friends and family, the next time you can work your night shift without wearing so much PPE.
Then, take a moment to just look at those questions.
I’ll be the first to admit: Not knowing the answer to these questions sucks. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting.
But there’s also something freeing about staring that truth in the face.
First: You recognize that you can tolerate the uncertainty. It’s on the page, you’re looking at it, and you’re OK. You’re safe in the face of uncertainty.
And second: When those questions pop up again in your head later, you can remember that you’ve already established that you can’t answer them. You have the assurance that worrying won’t change anything. It makes it a little easier to tune out those anxious thoughts.
The next time you feel anxious about all that’s uncertain, try this exercise and see if it helps you. I’ve done it a few times in the past two months—and each time, it brings me a little sense of comfort.
The most important thing is to remember to be kind to yourself if you still feel overwhelmed by all that’s uncertain after trying this out.
Building a tolerance for uncertainty is a practice, and we’ve all been thrown into the deep end right now.
But with time and intention, we can start feeling more calm in where we are even when where we’re going is unclear.
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