Psychology Today – In the last few weeks, with the coronavirus making its rounds around the world, there is more uncertainty as to what we’ll be doing in the next few months, weeks, or even days than many of us can remember experiencing in a very long time.

In the face of this uncertainty, do you find yourself scouring the internet for answers to all the questions running through your mind? Are you playing out all the what-if scenarios that your mind creatively supplies in large quantities in the hope that if something terrible actually happens, you’ll be better prepared? Do you find that much of your time and energy is devoted to either figuring out answers to questions that don’t have answers or trying not to think about the scary possibilities, all unsuccessfully?

If the answer to any of that is yes, rest assured, you are not alone. Uncertainty is one of the most difficult human experiences. Uncertainty means not having control over what might happen to us. We don’t do so well when we don’t have a sense of control – we may feel more anxious and more depressed and be more susceptible to pain and physical illnesses. Because a sense of control is so vital to our health and well-being, our minds go to great lengths to gain a sense of control in the face of uncertainty.

The actions that you may have found yourself engaging in recently – searching the internet for answers, playing out what-if scenarios, repeatedly worrying about what might happen in the future – are all an attempt by your mind to gain a sense of control. If you cannot have actual control, your mind attempts to make you feel as if you have control. If you think of enough what-if scenarios, and if you can find enough answers, you’ll be in control of what happens.

Of course, none of this actually gives you more control. Uncertainty is inevitable. Futile attempts to get rid of it take up a lot of your time and energy. As a result, you feel anxious and drained, and in no more control of uncertainty than before.

I am not suggesting that you should not have a plan for how to handle illnesses and other urgent situations. It is helpful to have a flexible plan for what to do to protect yourself and others. However, it is impossible to think through every scenario. Attempts to do that drain you of time, energy, and resources, and don’t leave enough to respond adaptively and resiliently to real-time changes in circumstances, usually ones you have not thought of or could have predicted.

Therefore, I suggest putting in the effort to create a flexible plan once, without repeatedly going over it. Your plan should focus on what is reasonably under your control. For example, regarding the coronavirus, it is helpful to have a plan that is consistent with CDC guidelines for how to reduce the risk of infection and what to do if you fall ill. It is helpful to decide what to do about planned vacations or large social events, or when to keep yourself away from others. On the other hand, it is not helpful to try to figure out whether and by how much the official statistics are inaccurate, who in your neighborhood may have been exposed, or whether this virus is still going to be around in six months.

Once you’ve made a plan based on what is under your control, the goal is to allow yourself to experience uncertainty, disengage from attempts to get rid of it, and allow yourself to respond to the discomfort of uncertainty in helpful ways.

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About the Author: Inna Khazan, Ph.D., BCB, is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School.
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