Coping with Uncertainty

Updated: May 18, 2020

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, has everyone on high alert. While we have faced the pandemics such as swine flu (H1N1) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) before, this coronavirus seems to have shaken the world as it is thought to be able to spread before symptoms show up in an infected individual.


Not knowing what is going to happen is scary and can make us feel like we being thrown into quicksand and, as curious humans, we often seek to understand and to control thinks in order to feel safe. Amid this outbreak, with uncertainty looming over us, it is almost inevitable that we feel in danger and this can feed our worry and anxiety. Yes, it is paramount to be vigilant at times like this, but we also need to be aware of the compulsion to wash our hands again and again every ten minutes to make sure they are clean and that we are safe could put us at risk of being unable to deal with uncertainties that are part of life. When we are unable to cope with the unpredictability that life throws at us, we are also more inclined to feel defeated and depressed.


Considering the nature of all things, and all the seemingly impossible possibilities, nothing is 100% absolute, and in this case, there is no guarantee how this virus outbreak could pan out.


“What can we do then?”


This question reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite books, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie:


“Don’t cling to things because everything is impermanent.”


Instead of clinging on to the feelings of helplessness during this difficult time, we need to trust the nature of ephemerality of such events. Just as we have endured previous plagues, this too shall pass.

Yes, it is hard not to give in to how we feel given that out feelings often help us detect danger and survive. But how we respond to fear plays an essential role in our mental health. An inability to cope with the fear of the unknown can make us feel anxious and helpless and start catastrophizing the situation with averse and unhelpful negative thoughts constantly having a field day in our minds. It is even expounded that the fear of the unknown is the fundamental component of all anxiety disorders (Carleton, 2016).


In cognitive behavioural therapy, we encourage clients to manage their intolerance to uncertainties by recognizing and accepting that there are things that are just not in our area of control. While we cannot control the direction the wind is blowing and the evolution of the coronavirus, what we could practise control and responsibility over are our choices. We can choose to see a doctor when we are feeling unwell or have more servings of vegetables and fruits in our diet or we can watch comedies all day long and have a good laugh.



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