Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic – Part 2 — Why Uncertainty Is Scary
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If I cease searching, then,
woe is me,
I am lost.
That is how I look at it—
keep going, keep going come what may.
― Vincent van Gogh
At the end of a loooong workday last week, I felt agitated and stressed. My son was heading out for a walk, so I went with him to decompress. Stretching my legs, breathing hard, taking in the outdoors and the (socially distant) fellow walkers, agitation gave way to exhaustion. Though it was relieving to move my body, I was so tired I had to drag myself down the home stretch back to the house.
Out of nowhere, the thought “Let’s go out to dinner” popped into my head. And I burst into tears.
Such a reflexive way I feel taken care of at the end of a long day—being served dinner by friendly-faced fellow humans in cozy, familiar surroundings—was utterly out of my reach. During shelter-in-place, my familiar neighborhood restaurants are all closed.
Yet my tears weren’t for simply not getting to go out to dinner. They were for the fact that, because of COVID-19, I have no idea about when (or if) these local businesses will ever reopen.
I. Have. No. Idea.
No one has any idea.
When will our kids go back to school? When will we get to work side-by-side with our co-workers? When will we be able to meet friends for dinner? When will we be able to mindlessly shop for groceries? Or for anything?
And those are the “easier” questions.
Because beneath every one of those questions lies:
When will we feel safe again? Will we feel safe again? When will we have to stop worrying that simple contact with other humans might make us or someone we love deathly ill?
And our tender, mortal brains are more afraid of uncertainty than of physical pain.
I always have to dig beneath emotional information into the WHY, because if I understand why, I can help you work with the feelings that emerge from situations like the one we find ourselves in together.
So WHY is uncertainty so stressful?
Because at the root of all uncertainty is a fear of threat.
If life is predictable, I have an unconscious plan for how to respond to circumstances so that I and the people I care about can continue to be safe in the world, and to ultimately remain alive.
Once I can’t predict what’s going to happen next, some part of me must remain on alert so I can respond to uncertain circumstances in ways that will lead me (and my loved ones) back to safety and remaining alive.
I’m not saying we all walk around consciously aware that uncertainty is discomforting because of our need to be guarded against threats to our safety and life. I know I’m not! But by becoming aware that that’s true we can begin to understand the deepest essence of why we’re all so stressed out in the middle of massive uncertainty:
We feel better when we know our safety and our survival are secure.
Another WHY at this point deepens the conversation:
WHY is feeling that our lives are safe and secure supremely important to us?
That may appear to be so obvious that there’s no point in asking it. But sometimes the most obvious things are never stated, so we remain unconscious of them even if they’re obvious.
So I’ll state the obvious:
- The deepest underlying reason we feel anxious and afraid in times of uncertainty is because we are unconsciously remaining vigilant to unpredictable circumstances so that we can survive and so we can protect the lives of those we care about, which leads to…
- The fundamental reason we care about survival is because life is valuable.
Uncertainty makes us afraid because we profoundly value life.
We realize at some bedrock level that it is an honor and a privilege to get to have an embodied life here on this planet. And we don’t want to lose that life any sooner than we must.
Understanding that fear of uncertainty stems from valuing life can help you create a reassuring story that calms your nervous system whenever you notice you’re feeling anxious or stressed about the constant unpredictability we’re all living with in the midst of this pandemic.
You can say to yourself, “I’m feeling scared and out of sorts in the midst of this uncertainty because I care about my life and the lives of others. If life didn’t matter, I wouldn’t be scared. Yet life does matter, so my brain is causing me to feel especially awake to a situation where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Letting myself know that I deeply care about my life and the lives of others awakens me to my vulnerability, which paradoxically awakens me to an appreciation of this precious life I have.”
Until next week, when I’ll describe more fully how naming exactly what you’re feeling will help you feel better, I hope this vision of how fear of uncertainty translates into an appreciation of life will help you find a bit of reassurance in the midst of these difficult times…