How to deal with uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic

Man with a mask standing at a window. (PHOTO: Justin Paget/Getty Images)
Man with a mask standing at a window. (PHOTO: Justin Paget/Getty Images)
Justin Paget

There was already plenty to worry about before: the state of the economy, the cost of living, climate change. All this made us fret about the future – but the coronavirus pandemic has ramped up feelings of uncertainty to the max.

We’re confronted with things we never imagined – being in lockdown in our homes, the closure of schools, universities and businesses, the economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

Life has never felt more uncertain and neuroscientists will tell you uncertainty is an even more stressful state to be in than actually knowing something bad will happen.

In a study done at University College London, researchers discovered that participants who knew for sure they’d receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they had a 50% chance of being shocked.

The human brain isn’t wired to tolerate uncertainty, but it’s wired to be alert to a threat. “If your brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way,” US-based psychotherapist Bryan Robinson explains.

“It always assumes the worst, overpersonalises threats and jumps to conclusions. Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty.

“And you’re hard-wired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them – all in the name of survival.”

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So if you’re feeling pandemic panic, it’s only natural, says Melissa Ferreira, a Cape Town-based educational psychologist.

“That’s simply how our brains work. We perceive coronavirus as a threat, and when we’re faced with a threat our brain’s executive functions such as self-control, judgment and decision-making can become overwhelmed by the more impulsive and emotional parts of the brain.”

Yet at the same time, anxiety is a natural flight-or-flight response and a small amount is important to protect us, says Tamara Sosa, a counselling psychologist based in Glenvista, Johannesburg.

“Anxiety is survival. Without it we’d die – by for example cuddling lions that look cute or juggling with knives. “We don’t want to switch off our anxiety altogether, as it’s a useful tool in guiding us.

“Let it warn you to wash your hands and to follow the government’s health advice. Let it remind you to call your loved ones.”

But, she cautions, pay attention to when your levels of uncertainty and anxiety start to spiral and leave you feeling overwhelmed. Here’s action the experts recommend you take.

Woman with her hands in her wallet
Woman with her hands in her wallet. (PHOTO: seksan Mongkhonkhamsao/Getty Images)

Worry #1

Money, money, money

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on stock markets and the risk of recession has skyrocketed.

At this stage, nobody really knows what to expect – but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless.

Use the downtime wisely

Financial markets may be in flux, but you can get a grip on your personal finances by doing some investigating. Use this time to focus on your financial health, says US-based counselling psychologist Kelsey Torgerson.

“Spend some time finding the best budgeting apps to try to track how and why you’re spending your money and work towards making better financial decisions.”

One good local app to explore is 22Seven, free to download on both Android and iOS. Financial Toolbelt is a good desktop app to manage your money.

Communicate with your lender

If your income takes a hit because of the virus, you might need to cut back on certain payments until you can get back to work fully. Don’t be tempted to stick your head in the sand and default on your repayments, warns local financial journalist Maya Fisher-French.

“If you’re affected, speak to your bank and insurance companies. Most are making provisions for those badly affected and will happily agree to a payment arrangement.

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Worry #2

Will the kids be all right?

It’s only natural for your children to feel anxious about their future and concerned for the health and safety of their family members. The virus is all anyone is talking about – it’s impossible for some of your anxiety not to rub off on them.

It's all about balance

“Where possible limit their access to the news and rather allow them to watch uplifting real-life stories or educational channels,” educational psychologist Melissa Ferreira says. “Limit access to what may feel like scary and confusing information. But, at the same time, kids shouldn’t be left in the dark. Try to focus on the most relevant aspects of the pandemic and share that with them.”

Practise positive realism

Mark Fraser-Grant of KZN-based life coaching organisation Beyond Coaching warns against patronising your children. “Be honest with them and practise something called positive realism,” he says. “Kids are smart. If we say, ‘Everything’s going to be fine’, they’ll say, ‘How do you know that?’ Instead say, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but what I do know is that I love you, we have a roof over our heads and we’re going to be okay’.”

Keep things simple

Ferreira and FraserGrant agree parents shouldn’t become too preoccupied with kids sitting down for long homework shifts or complicated home-craft activities. “What children actually need in lockdown is hugs, making memories together, laughing together, quality time, parents playing with them and having conversations,” Ferreira says.

Fraser-Grant adds that families should try to find a natural rhythm in the household instead of following a rigid schedule. “Engage with your children when it comes to creating a schedule. Ask them, ‘How long do you think you can sit with your homework before you’ll need a break?’ They’re more likely to believe in the process if they feel like they own it.” 

Woman on her phone
Woman on her phone. (PHOTO: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

Worry #3

The 24-hour news cycle

Research has shown that chronic TV watchers and news followers have elevated fears as everything they see and read starts to feel like it’s happening outside their front door. But how can you keep abreast of what’s going on outside without feeling as if you’re drowning in the apocalyptic 24-hour news cycle?

Avoid fake news

Don’t believe everything you read, educational psychologist Melissa Ferreira says. “Focus on facts from trusted sources, scientists and medical experts, and ignore gossip and online theories.”

Browse mindfully

“A constant stream of news can feel consuming and debilitating,” counselling psychologist Tamara Sosa warns.

“Set times of limited amounts of exposure and make a point of continuing with mindful activities for yourself and your family.

“Yoga and meditation are excellent ways to manage serotonin and dopamine in the brain which are linked to anxiety.”

The best way to fight the urge to google “coronavirus” every few minutes, according to Ferreira, is to commit to only checking the news cycle three times a day.

“It’s true that situations change rapidly, but overchecking can make you unnecessarily anxious.”

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Take time out

This virus may be a life-changer but it’s also forced the world to slow down, counselling psychologist Tamara Sosa says.

Now is the time to hit pause and think about what’s really important.

“Use the time to be mindful, to read, engage in family games, watch your neglected series and films, tend your garden and have virtual dinner dates with loved ones. Just take things one day at a time and be kind to yourself.”