Amanda Cade

Worth It! (Things to try, read, watch, hear, and discuss)

Last week, Collins Dictionary announced that the 2020 word of the year is “lockdown”. Runners up included “Coronavirus”, “key worker”, “furlough”, and “social distancing”. Definitely strong contenders and a tough decision, but I feel like the list of finalists missed one very important 2020 theme: Uncertainty.

I’m thinking about a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago, while COVID cases are rising rapidly, our school districts debate in person versus virtual education, our election results are being challenged, and many employers (including mine) discuss safety precautions and possible changes in policy. At one point, my friend said, “Right now I almost don’t care what the decisions are-I just want decisions to be made. I want to have an idea of what’s going to happen. I want to be able to react and plan and figure things out, instead of sitting in limbo all the time”.

Her comments perfectly reflected another term I didn’t think much about until this year, but am now intimately familiar with: uncertainty fatigue. So let’s talk about it.

What it is

In some situations, not knowing what’s going to happen can be exciting and positive, but there’s a big difference between wondering how a movie is going to turn out or what you’re going to get for your birthday and wondering if you’re going to lose your job, if your kids will be able to go to school, or if you or someone you care about is going to catch a deadly virus. That kind of uncertainty is stressful rather than exciting, and its effects are cumulative.

You see, when things are uncertain, you burn more energy than normal. This manifests predominantly in a heightened awareness, because the back of your brain is acting on fight-or-flight instincts. As far as your hindbrain is concerned, you are in a strange environment, and there could be tigers lurking in every bush, so you have to stay alert until you’ve normalized the environment enough to feel comfortable. When your brain keeps identifying new possible threats, it doesn’t let you relax.

You see, when things are uncertain, you burn more energy than normal. This manifests predominantly in a heightened awareness, because the back of your brain is acting on fight-or-flight instincts. As far as your hindbrain is concerned, you are in a strange environment, and there could be tigers lurking in every bush, so you have to stay alert until you’ve normalized the environment enough to feel comfortable. When your brain keeps identifying new possible threats, it doesn’t let you relax.

In our modern world, the uncertainty we’re faced with doesn’t come from strange trees and bushes that might hold predators (At least, I hope not!). Instead, we’re facing ever-shifting political landscapes and global pandemics. The latter is especially strong, because every time you go in public or interact with another person that isn’t a close member of your family or friend circle, on some level you are aware they could be carrying the Coronavirus. 

Uncertainty fatigue comes from extended periods of being on high alert for possible changes. Your brain is keeping your body primed for a fight that never comes, and it starts to wear on you. 

How to recognize it

The signs and symptoms for uncertainty fatigue, like so many things happening in the world right now, are more complex than they seem at first glance. It manifests as restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and an inability to feel comfortable even in familiar environments. Even though you’re home and safe, you know that there are possible things that can go wrong, and your mind is blaring a red “DANGER” sign at full wattage. 

Uncertainty fatigue is a subset of the stress response, but it’s unique in that many normal stress management techniques don’t work very well. Stress management frequently relies on removing stressors from your environment, finding a new location to relax, or changing what you’re doing. However, all of those are changes, and can actually make uncertainty fatigue worse. You think you’re doing all the right things, but you’re treating the wrong problem. 

This can create a negative feedback loop that exacerbates the issues, but can also help you identify the problem. If stress management is paradoxically making you more stressed, then you’re probably suffering from uncertainty fatigue, and you need to try something different.

How to fix it

First, try to establish control where you can. This is not a time to make unnecessary changes, other than establishing a routine. Make sure that there are regular bedtimes, mealtimes, etc. for everyone in your household. Remove clutter from your environment so the monkey in the back of your brain knows there’s no predators there, but wait a while before making significant changes to your environment. Your home is your fortress against the uncertainty of the world outside, and the more like a bastion it seems, the better you’ll feel. 

This is far from the first time I’ve talked about self-regulating your media intake, but it definitely bears repeating. Find two or three news sources you both trust and that provide definite answers. Avoid media that asks questions about what could go wrong without providing hard evidence or resolution. Limit your social media to trusted friends and colleagues that you know won’t spin wild theories or share unfounded stories. 

Also, try to determine the largest source of your uncertainty, and seek out an answer. For example, is the uncertainty coming from not knowing if your children are going back to school and if it’s going to be safe if they do? Read up on the rate of infection in your area, read their school district’s official statement, and then tell yourself that’s enough. The answer may change, but you cannot control what the answer will be. Instead, you can control what you will do if that changes. Tell yourself: “It’s not in my control, and that’s okay. I can control what is within my sphere of influence, and everything else will have an answer in time.”

The goal here is to stay as informed as you need to feel confident without spiralling into conspiracy theories and more uncertainty. Trust that the experts know what they’re doing. It might take some time to find out exactly what ratio works best for you, but once you have it, you’ll be on the route to a more certain and confident mindset that will stick with you. When you add routines and a stable environment on top of that, then you’ll just need a few nights of good, solid sleep to recharge the energy you’ve burnt on uncertainty. Although everything won’t magically be better, you will definitely start to feel better.

What are the uncertainties in your life, and how are you coping with them?

24 thoughts on “Uncertainty Fatigue

  1. This is a great post. I’m definitely feeling this uncertainty and it’s exhausting – physically and mentally. I’ve stopped watching the news, and that’s helped reduce my anxiety. I’ve also started de-cluttering and re-organizing my home and my computer files and photos bc that brings me some comfort – I think you’re right about it’s a control I still have. I also feel better by getting outside for a brisk walk with some good tunes… Good luck everyone!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      I’ve also done massive decluttering. I also did a lot of home improvement projects, but recently put them on hold when I started feeling overly anxious about them and realized that they had started to be harmful rather than helpful. I’ll start again when things are more settled in other areas.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. kagould17 says:

    Amen to that, Amanda. Uncertainty seems to be rampant in this age of challenge everything, challenge authority and sow chaos. It seems that many want their 15 seconds of fame in order to feel powerful and will do what it takes to get it. When the pandemic first started, we decided how we would handle it and while we were initially peeved at those who did not understand the danger or the science, we gave up trying to influence them and did what we had to, to stay healthy. No in home visitors, physical distance visits outdoors or on the computer, shopping at off hours, wearing masks in shops, limiting our exposure to crowded places and staying healthy with exercise and fresh air. Even though we are in Canada, the chaos of the U.S. election disrupted our concentration for a while, until we understood that the American people would do the right thing, eventually. I think Reinhold Neibhur said it best (in numerous versions) God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Serenity is what we all need right now and each of us must find it in our own way. As the British say….Keep calm and carry on. Allan

    Like

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Even when restrictions eased, I’ve remained personally vigilant and erred on the side of caution, and most of my family and friends have done the same. It really is a situation of controlling what you can and trying to let the rest go. All the best to you and yours, Allan.

      Like

  3. Jennie says:

    Well said, Amanda. I think uncertainty is a far better word, because the virus has had such a far reaching effect on everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      It underscores everything that has been happening this year: the virus, politics, natural disasters, social upheaval…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Josh Gross says:

    I hadn’t heard about uncertainty fatigue before, but it definitely makes sense. Personally, I’m glad I’ve been living in the Rockies without much internet access for much of the pandemic, because I feel like it’s been good to be away from social media – especially Twitter. Now that I’m sneaking online more frequently, I find that my stress levels are increasing. In fact, I’m thinking about shutting down my Twitter account, because that platform in particular seems to be extra negative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Twitter is insane. I’m not even on it, but I hear about it all the time. I’ve backed away from Instagram in the past few months, although I’ll probably return somewhere down the road, when I feel a little more settled.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Josh Gross says:

        I used to use Twitter to keep up with nature-related news and scientists, but now it’s so toxic that I don’t even want to do that. I might start working on my Instagram account once I’m back in ‘civilization’ though, because I’ll probably have close to 500 Colorado pics to share.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. ruthsoaper says:

    I plan for the worst and pray for the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      I find that to be an excellent life strategy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ruthsoaper says:

        It is something that I have practiced for years and I don’t remember the last time I really have had a crisis because if something goes wrong I pretty much know how I am going to deal with it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. petespringerauthor says:

    Right on the money, as usual. The overall challenge on the pandemic is uncertainty. How can we make plans when we don’t know when it will end and where we’ll be from one week to the next?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Exactly. A lot of false starts and replanning going on these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Definitely feeling the uncertainty fatigue. I limit my news to two online outlets I trust. I’m letting go of winter holiday expectations and planning a zoom thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good morning, from Madrid. In Twitter, I try to be updated checking different sources of news from different countries. So, is true that we cannot make plans for too long time, but is for sure that this pandemic situation will stay with us one year more, minimum, because the distribution of vaccines will be held during 2021. I think, even we have the vaccine, this virus will be like another flu, every year we must go for the updated vaccine, because are mutant viruses.
    Our life will be little by little like one year before, but with a new kind of flu…
    The word UNCERTAINTY will be part of our lifes, maybe forever, because now we gained another word: CONSCIOUSNESS that we are not so Safe as we suposed we was.
    The Human spice is characterized for his RESILIENCE, fighting any further challenge.
    #uncertainty #resilience #consciousness

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Those are great words, and they’re very important to remember. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Simon says:

    Great advice…I hope you’re keeping well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      I’m doing all right. Staying focused on the positive. How are you?

      Like

      1. Simon says:

        Yeah I’m trying that as well… I’m doing ok thanks 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. heatherjo says:

    This is very similar to pandemic fatigue. I don’t know when I’ll go back into the office (I’m in no rush to go back so this causes me some anxiety). Not sure when religious services will open back up and I’m slowly becoming a hermit so it’s going to be hard going back to normal. I’m just taking things one day at a time.
    Here’s an article about dealing with Pandemic fatigue that I found to be very helpful – https://www.jw.org/finder?wtlocale=E&docid=501100011&srcid=share

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda Cade says:

      Thank you for sharing that article! A lot of good advice there. 🙂

      Like

  11. JoAnn says:

    I’m feeling a lot more optimistic now that several effective vaccines are on the horizon… it’s a painfully slow process though! Patience isn’t a choice but a necessity… difficult as it is 😳

    Like

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