Dealing With Uncertainty

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Franklin wrote these words less than two years after he participated in ratifying the Constitution of The United States. It was a time of great promise and great uncertainty for our country. Facing such uncertainty, Franklin facetiously turned to the two things of which he could be certain.

More than 200 years later, our country is again faced with a time of great uncertainty. Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and author, calls our current situation “prolonged uncertainty,” Not only do we feel uncertain, but we also don’t know when our feeling of uncertainty will end. There are so many things which we do not know, including: not knowing if our family members will get sick; not knowing when we will go back to work or if we will lose our jobs; not knowing how long we will have benefits; not knowing how long the virus will last; not knowing how long we will wait before scientists find a vaccine; and not knowing how long it will take for our economy to fully reopen. However, unlike Ben Franklin, we now know how to better cope with the uncertainties in life, rather than just ruminating about death and taxes.

So, how do we deal with the feelings of prolonged uncertainty? In general, when we understand ourselves better, we often feel relief. To that end, here are a few things you can do to better understand yourself and address uncertainty:

Articulate your feelings: don’t just say “I’m stressed!” Try to put your feelings into words like, “I’m feeling frustrated about not being called back to work”
Be mindful: pause and ask yourself how you are doing. Think about your thoughts, actions and emotions- really pay attention
Identify your stress triggers: check in with each emotion: guilt, shame, helplessness, despair, irritation, anger, inadequacy, confusion, disconnection, loneliness
Recognize feelings of gratitude, love, respect, and compassion.  Say them out loud or write them down
Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to that may be contributing to more stress: news, arguments, and so on
Choose to be hopeful: limit the intake of news and social media that may bring you down. Instead, identify what motivates you and makes you feel hopeful
Reassure yourself: tell yourself you are okay right now
Breathe: focus on one breath at a time, feeling the air come into the body and out of the body. By simply taking two minutes to breathe, you can alleviate anxiety, stress, slow your heart rate, and restore a feeling of calm

In this time of prolonged uncertainty, if self-reflection and the activities mentioned above feel too challenging, try journaling or talking to a friend. If this is not enough, and you feel overwhelmed or need additional support, please call the Members’ Health Assistance Program (MHAP) at 212-237-3037, and speak to a counselor. For your safety and privacy, all phone calls are confidential, and appointments for ongoing treatment are conducted by telephone or video conferencing. 

We’ve been through trying times before, and they have ended. This pandemic, and how it is affecting our lives, will also end. What we’ve learned from previous periods of uncertainty, and what Ben Franklin didn’t know, is that addressing uncertainty by understanding ourselves, managing stress, anxiety and fear now, we can prevent experiencing long-lasting effects from this pandemic. Rather than use Ben Franklin’s somewhat pessimistic quote, we choose the outlook of another American, Charlie Chaplin, who in his 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, stated “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world – not even our troubles.”