All of us like to have a predictable and familiar life, no matter how much novelty we seek. The reason being, it gives us absolute confidence and a sense of control on situations. And, it ordinarily boosts our sense of wellbeing and happiness. However, the reality is that life can be full of surprises; it is not always possible to have control over what is happening with us. While many people may pause and reflect on unexpected happenings to get clarity, some succumb to the unpredictability. This can result in varied negative emotions like sadness, anger and anxiety.
Take the recent COVID-19 pandemic as an example. Not many could understand its devastating consequences, what it is, and how to contain it. Even before we could grasp what was happening, most parts of the world were caught in its grip. There was a financial slowdown. People lost their jobs. Institutions closed. Children had to stay home and attend school online. Working from home became a norm for most age groups and occupations. Many could not physically be with their loved ones for comfort because of safety measures.
When we pause and reflect, we realise that this was not the first time we faced a crisis. Events may vary, but we all have encountered difficult circumstances. So, what made COVID-19 unique? Undoubtedly, its many enigmas—whether about its spread, or the nature of its impact, whom it affected, availability of an antidote, confidence in getting back to our routines, etc. There were more questions than answers. There was uncertainty on many levels. At least, that is what the popular media portrayed. Though things are changing for better, we are cautious about many things.
Inability to tolerate uncertainty
Psychologists have often wondered what makes people breakdown or build resilience in the midst of the unknown—why some people are more stressed-out than others in the face of a crisis. How do some people remain resilient no matter what the situation is? One of the key elements that stood out in response to the quest for understanding was ‘people’s ability to tolerate uncertainty or lack of it’. People who cannot deal with unpredictability and uncertainty are prone to experiencing more, and more intense, negative emotions than others. And, this may result in anxiety, stress, sadness, irritability, aggression, etc. Such people are also highly likely to use ineffective coping methods to deal with the stress caused by the “uncertain situations”. That is why we see some people resorting to drinking, smoking, binge eating, starving and exhibiting impulsive behaviours (e.g. rash driving, doing drugs, acting aggressively) in the face of crisis. Some people may cut-off from the real world and create an alternate reality, immersing in the digital world by surfing and gaming, or remaining aloof and discouraged. In extreme cases, we also witness in people a lack of will to live.
How to build hope when there is uncertainty
Stress is inevitable under uncertain conditions. But, if we handle it well, it teaches us how to adjust and adapt to new situations. Even in extraordinary circumstances, handling stress well can lead to personal growth and positive meaning in life. Contrary to what some people believe, hope is not about putting up a brave face or insulating from pain. Hope is the driving force to remain positive. It is undoubtedly, not a virtue of only a few people. We can cultivate hope if we strive for it. So, let us look at some of the strategies to build hope.
Reflecting (not ruminating)
When there is a stressful situation, we tend to avoid the situation or ruminate about it. But both responses are not healthy. Instead, we need to pause and reflect on what we can do about this rather than fretting about it. For example, how long COVID-19 will last is not within our control, but taking safety measures to minimise the risk of infection, such as hand-washing, wearing a face mask, and social distancing, is within our control. Reflecting will identify some “proactive strategies” for us to follow correctly in every situation.
Being aware of emotions (not suppressing them)
Every problematic situation will cause us some amount of emotional disturbance. We only differ in our ways of expressing them and dealing with them. It is a myth that people do not get emotionally upset under stressful situations. Some people ignore their emotions or put up a brave face to cope with reality. But both are not correct. Suppressed emotions cause more havoc. So it is better to share our feelings with others. Of course, with whom we share and how much we share is a matter of choice. But sharing is a must. If such opportunities are limited, we can write them in a diary or talk into a phone. When emotions do not weigh down our minds, we will use our mental energies to solve problems in a manner that is healthy, safe and effective.
Accepting (not avoiding)
Accepting the reality may be painful initially, but it will help us grow out of the plight faster. Avoidance gives us temporary relief, but once we are in our senses, the reality haunts us. The more we avoid dealing with an issue, the bigger a problem it will become in our mind. That is why excess sleeping, less sleeping, daydreaming, drug abuse, binge eating and starving do not help us deal with the situation in the long run. Instead, we need to accept the situation to make a proper plan to deal with it. Acceptance will also teach us to be humble and not to rely solely on our own strength.
Social support always gives strength. So, we need to seek it actively and also offer it to others as required. Therefore, we need to prioritise our relationships and nurture them. But not just when there is a crisis. Instead, it should be a way of life. As Christians, we also need to prioritise and nurture our relationship with God for He protects us and gives us wise counsel. The Psalmist (see Psalm 16:7–8 New King James Version) beautifully described this aspect:
7 I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel;
My heart also instructs me in the night seasons.
8 I have set the Lord always before me;
Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved.
Adopting healthy lifestyles
There is a connection between physical health and mental health. When we nourish our bodies physically, it also strengthens our minds. The saying, “sound body is sound mind” summarises this relationship very poignantly. Suitable physical activities, healthy eating habits, 6–8 hours of night-time sleep, and minimizing (if complete avoidance is not possible) the use of alcohol and tobacco will keep us fit both physically and mentally.
Finding a purpose amidst crisis
If we look around us, we will find many people who are less fortunate than us. Helping others in need will give us a purpose. Our help could be anything— from offering some material help to listening to them.
Embracing healthy thoughts
A healthy thought pattern is denoted by: flexibility in seeing an alternate perspective; accepting the things that cannot be changed; and maintaining a positive attitude. Therefore, we need to deal with self-defeating thoughts head-on. Writing a diary will help to identify healthy and unhealthy thoughts. The next step is making a small change in behaviour to deal with the unproductive thoughts.
How to identify people in distress and help them
When we are stressed, our mood, interests, activity levels, and eating and sleeping patterns are the first things to change. Then there will be behavioural changes such as smoking, drinking and socially inappropriate manners (e.g. being aloof or clinging to people). In severe cases of distress, people may report hearing voices or strange convictions that are difficult to understand (e.g. someone is after them to finish their life, or predictions of doom). We need to identify these negative patterns and offer appropriate help to address them. This can include seeking professional mental health support.
In summary, crises are common in life. We need to adopt a proactive life physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually to be ready for any situation. Those who do, do not need social support for overcoming stress. But, not everyone has these kinds of strength or readiness. In either case, learning to tolerate uncertainty is the key for overcoming stress. This can be done by reflecting on the situation, identifying ways to deal with it, accepting what we cannot change, seeking social support, counting blessings and being flexible to consider alternative options. All these will build hope to deal with any situation.