| Family First Feature |

Can’t Be Sure

Uncertainty disrupts our lives and routines. But with the right tools, we can learn to triumph — not only over adversity, but even over the unknown

Being a Disney character could be nice. Our stories would be predictable, and make sense, and the ending would be happy, with all the loose threads tied up.

But not too many lives are like that. Ambiguity is an inherent aspect of life. Our hearts and minds have their own way of spelling “uncertainty,” and it’s d-a-n-g-e-r. If we knew for sure when the virus would die out, or the vaccine discovered, we’d feel better. If we knew for sure that when that happened, everyone we cared about would be healthy and well, we’d feel better. If we knew for sure that we’d still have jobs and homes when it was all over, we’d feel better. But we don’t.

Stock markets don’t rally to uncertainty, and neither do people. But with a pandemic in the air, riots in the streets, and shaky prospects for parnassah, we’re being forced to face the precariousness of life. Uncertainty paralyzes us and can cripple our efforts to cope. We do whatever we can to reassert control over our lives, but our options are pretty limited. We’re being pushed to the edges of our nests, and forced to learn to fly.

Fear of the Unknown

Most of our daily activities are performed by rote. Uncertainty disrupts our automatic routines and makes us hypervigilant, both mentally and emotionally. It causes us to see threats everywhere, and to produce an outsized emotional response.

Cancer, with all of its unknowns and frightening implications, is one of the ultimate tests of our ability to deal with uncertainty. Researchers measured cortisol (stress hormone) levels in people waiting for the results of their biopsies, and in people who had been diagnosed with cancer. Sure, waiting on tenterhooks for an answer is stressful, but it has to be better than the stress of hearing that the biopsy shows cancer… doesn’t it?

There’s no difference. Uncertainty is as stressful as being diagnosed with cancer.

“If you talk to any woman who’s had a biopsy and had to wait for results, she’ll tell you it’s a horrible roller coaster,’’ said Dr. E. Lang, professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. “When patients hear they have a cancer, they can start doing something. But while you’re just hanging in there without knowing, it’s very stressful.’’

Uncertainty is like rocket fuel for worry. The logical and emotional parts of our brains are wired together. When the logical part (the prefrontal cortex) faces uncertainty, the emotional part (the amygdala) responds with fear. In a study, some participants were told they would get a painful electric shock, and others were told they may or may not receive a shock. Those who knew they’d get a shock were more relaxed than those who were uncertain. When participants were given a choice of which group they’d like to be in, most people chose to suffer a strong jolt of electricity right away, rather than wait to see if they’d be shocked or not. They preferred certainty to uncertainty, even when it meant they were doomed to suffer.

“Uncertainty lays the groundwork for anxiety because anxiety is always future-oriented,” says Professor Jack Nitschke, coauthor of the electric shock study. And the more uncertainty there is, the more we’re likely to imagine worst-case scenarios and obsess about them.

“The strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” said a well-known novelist.


Addicted to News

Even minor uncertainties are hard to bear. Disneyland posts how long you’ll have to wait from a given point in the line, to spare their visitors the anxiety of not knowing. Even if the freeway signs tell us we’re going to be stuck in one-mile-an-hour traffic until the next off-ramp, we respond with less anxiety and frustration than if we don’t have that information.

And when facing a pandemic, we become addicted to news reports and updated statistics. Knowing feels better than not knowing. Resolving uncertainties gives us a feeling of control, and just the feeling of having some control is calming.

Uncertainty niggles at us. That’s why surprises grab our attention. From the age of several months, infants will stare longer at objects that behave in ways that don’t make sense, like a ball that seems to roll through walls. We notice something is off, but aren’t sure what it is.

When noticing an unprecedented event, we get more “pattern-hungry,” says behavioral economist Jamie Holmes, explaining that we’re “looking for consistency. We need to establish order after experiencing disorder, to figure out what violated our expectations. We’re trying to assert meaning in some way.” When events turn our expectations upside down, we’re agitated, and we can’t quell the feeling until we think we understand what happened.

Caveat: Too much information can backfire. Newly diagnosed patients who begin to exhaustively research their conditions are soon “overwhelmed by the amount of information,” reports a study published by BioMed Central-Public Health. Such patients come away from their computers frustrated and confused.

This may be especially true for our efforts to allay the uncertainties caused by coronavirus. “Much of the information [about coronavirus] available right now is either educated guesswork or worst-case-scenario prognosticating. People who spend a lot of their day consuming everything they can about the virus are more likely to feel confused or frightened than informed,” says Michelle Newman, director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at the Pennsylvania State University.

Sneezes on Our Brains

Coronavirus isn’t the most contagious thing out there; emotions are. We pick up other people’s emotions as easily as the sniffles spread through a preschool. The aura of uncertainty emanating from world leaders and our own neighbors makes our nervousness worse.

“Social contagion” is the technical term for this. It shows up in Wall Street’s Volatility Index (VIX), also called the “fear index,” which tracks the ups and downs of investors’ “fear and greed.” (In February, the VIX shot up to heights previously matched only in the recession of 2008.) It shows up in the grocery store, where a few people hoarding cold medicine or bottled water can start the whole country stampeding to stockpile essential goods.

Speaking with someone who’s anxious triggers our own anxieties. Their fearful words are “like a sneeze landing directly on our brains, emotionally infecting our prefrontal cortex and sending it out of control as it worries about everything,” says psychiatrist Dr. J. Brewer. “Overwhelmed by uncertainty, the rational parts of our brains go offline. Logically, we know we don’t need a six-month supply of toilet paper, but when we see someone’s cart piled high, their anxiety infects us, and we go into survival mode.”

That means we’re pretty much doomed to suffer from anxiety while evaluating our uncertain new circumstances, like deciding whether it’s safe to visit Bubby, or whether everything from the grocery order needs to be disinfected.

The uncertain future can easily leave us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait. Worrying is one possible response. But it’s like sitting in a rocking chair; it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Regaining Confidence

Uncertainty has always been part of the human condition, but much research has been done on the best ways to cope with it. We don’t have to be sponges for everyone else’s emotions, or reflexively mirror whatever they’re feeling. We can take control, learn how to manage our reaction to uncertainty, and become a calming influence on those around us.

When we run into an icy patch of road, and we’re unsure what to do, our instinct (the emotional part of our brain) tells us to slam on the brakes. The rational part of our mind remembers that that’s the way to disaster; the smart thing to do is to stay calm and avoid overreacting.

The only constant in life is that it will involve change. But even when we’re violently ejected from our cozy cocoons of consistency, we can cope by changing the way we deal with uncertainty. Even if the anxiety it triggers is making us miserable, we can make the best of it. Here are practical ways to do so:

Face your fears. Accept your emotions. Trying to hide or ignore fears and anxieties makes them stronger and more overwhelming. Your subconscious knows that if you’re running away from something, it must be significant. And it may be. You may not be as afraid of catching coronavirus as you are of losing control of your life, and that’s a significant fear. Talking about your emotions, or writing them down, can help you stop fearing them and start facing them.

Reduce stress. When you’re in the dentist’s chair, you take a moment to breathe deeply while he picks out the next sharp, whining object he’s going to put into your mouth, right? Lowering your stress, even for a moment, leaves you better prepared for the next stressor. It keeps the strain from piling up until it’s over your head. If there’s a stressor you can do away with during tough times, get rid of it.

Focus on what you can control. The worst part of uncertainty is the lack of control. Oftentimes, we overlook the little things we can do to make life calmer while obsessing about the big things we can’t do.

Take back whatever control you can by making plans. Instead of expecting the future to present you with something specific, focus on what you’ll do to create the experience you want. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

Accept what you can’t control. Compulsive consumption of information is a favorite way of grasping for certainty in uncertain circumstances. It gives us a feeling of control. But paradoxically, it increases anxiety. Checking the news once a day (okay, twice!) is enough to let you know what’s going on and what you have to do. The less frequently you check, the less often you have the feeling that you can take responsibility for it.

But don’t ask, “What if?” “What if?” questions are just worries by a different name. There are so many possibilities, and the more you worry, the less time you’ll have for logical planning. Plans can give you more control, but worries just make us more uncertain, which creates a vicious cycle.

When all else fails, breathe. You can’t get inner peace by pouncing on it. Sitting still and focusing on your breathing trains you to focus solely on the task at hand and to dismiss nagging worries. It just takes a minute or two, and you’ll be surprised at how calming it is.

You can also focus on your footsteps, or your food, or any one thing, really. When your brain has too many tabs open, take a moment to fully experience the present, stonewalling worries about the future. It leaves room in your brain for you to realize, “I’m okay right now.”

Don’t dwell on problems. Carving out a specific time and place for worrying can keep it from taking over the rest of your day. It should be separate from the times and places that you work, sleep, or relax. You don’t want to start associating your bed, or bedtime, with worry; you want to control worrying by deciding when and where you’ll let it happen.

Observe your feelings. Uncertainty itself isn’t the problem; it’s our tendency to get caught up in our feelings about it. We start to imagine a chain of events: If I get sick, there won’t be anyone to referee the kids; the kids will start to fight; they’ll drive my husband crazy; he’ll yell at them; family relationships will be ruined.

To break the cycle in which an anxious thought causes even more anxious thoughts, we have to be aware that we’re getting anxious. “He touched his face! He’ll get sick!” could be followed by, “I’m just being anxious about this because I’m worried about coronavirus. I know that he washes his hands. He’ll be okay.”

Breaking into the anxiety cycle gives the rational brain a chance to get a word in.

Stay positive. Concentrating on a positive thought can distract us from worry. It can quiet the fears and irrational thinking that uncertainty breeds. Uncertainty makes us anxious because we believe life is about to get bad. The antidote is gratitude — acknowledging all the good we’ve experienced at every moment throughout our lives, and recognizing that Hashem always has and always will do what’s best for us.


Improvisation theater is a lesson in embracing uncertainty. The actors have no scripts. They get up on stage without knowing what the performance will be about, or who the characters are, or even what names they’ll be given.

An audience member calls out a random word, which becomes the basis of the skit that the actors make up as they go. If the word prompt is “gun,” one character may point his cocked fingers at another and say, “Stop! I’ve got a gun!”

The other might answer, “The gun I gave you for our wedding anniversary, Eric? How could you?”

Learning how they do it can give us the confidence to deal with the uncertainties of real life. We’re all working without scripts, all the time. We don’t know how the coronavirus pandemic is going to end. Doctors and talking heads speculate, comparing 2020 with the Spanish Flu, or 9/11, but the truth is that we’re making things up as we go.

There are some basic guidelines that make it easier for improv actors to create a successful performance.

The first guideline is “listen.” Improvisation is impossible if characters aren’t listening to each other. Imagine the first actor saying, “Cousin Miriam, how do you handle the heat here in Florida?” and Miriam, who hasn’t been listening, pantomimes putting on a mittens and a scarf. We have to listen to what others are saying to get through this.

The next guideline is “Yes, and.” First comes the “Yes” — the actor must accept what the other actors come up with. If the second actor says, “Tali, we’re not in Florida. We’re in Antarctica!” the scene is dead.

Next, the actors need to collaborate. They’ve said, “Yes, I accept what you’ve said and done,” and now comes the “and I’m going to build on it.” Think: “Yes, it’s so hot here, the trees are melting!”

Listening closely to the people around us can help all of us through this uncertain time. If someone tells you she’s scared, don’t pooh-pooh her fears. Hear what she’s saying. And accept it. Telling your neighbor that hoarding is dumb won’t make her stop hoarding. Be supportive instead of judgmental. Divisiveness will make our uncertainties and anxieties more pronounced.

So much is uncertain now. We don’t know how long life will be changed by this pandemic. But connecting with the people we’re close to, listening to them and accepting them and working together with them, will give us more confidence — even though we’re working without a script.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 697)

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