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Whether it’s the political volatility in the United States, the UK, wherever you are; the latest Covid lockdown in the UK and Europe; or simply your day-to-day work and life challenges amid the ongoing pandemic, chances are the future is on your mind. You likely to be wondering what the future holds. How events right now are going to shape your future. And just possibly thinking about when this whole coronavirus situation will be over.
All this thinking about what has yet not happened, all the scenarios you may be considering will be having an impact on you. You may feel frustrated and angry. You may feel like just avoiding the whole thing and pretending it’s not really got anything to do with you. You may feel hyper-vigilant and alert to all new information or even overwhelmed to the point of feeling practically paralysed.
Whatever your experience is, there’s a reality of an extremely uncertain time which many of us have no reference for as we’ve not lived through anything similar before. Add to this the fact that many have lost their sense of freedom because of the enforced lockdowns and the gravity of the situation becomes apparent.
In such circumstances we are confronted with a choice: whether to endure through gritted teeth or turn it to your advantage and mine what’s going on for learning and growth?
The biggest and single most challenging learning to mine is that the future hasn’t happened yet. Recognising the uncertainty of that, feeling just how uncomfortable that is and leaning into that discomfort. This is your invitation here.
Why we feel so uncomfortable with uncertainty and feeling trapped
Uncertainty and feeling trapped are two of the biggest psychological challenges that we humans can ever experience. We first talked about the enormous impact of both in our What am I making it mean? blog post back in April.
Trapped, all animals (including us) display extraordinary behaviours. For example, if you’ve ever seen the movie 127 Hours — which is based on true events — you’ll know that the main character, Aron, amputates his own arm after getting it trapped while mountaineering. It can also paralyse us which is a well known and sometimes confusing response studied in the field Survival psychology. John Leach describes this as ‘the won’t to live‘ in his paper about how some people perish unnecessarily in situations where they feel trapped and don’t utilise potential escape routes. Both examples highlight just how unbearable it is to us to feel trapped.
When it comes to uncertainty, few of us are actually in a position to predict or control our futures. Wait, what!? While it might seem like you have the power to do so, the reality is you really don’t. That sense of control you think you have is an illusion. If you have already experienced an extremely difficult situation, like a major illness or similar in the past, chances you already have a sense of how little control you have over the future.
For those who’ve not had to learn that lesson yet, what’s going on now can make this feel like an even tougher lesson to learn because it’s not just happening in your life, your family, it’s happening to all of us.
Stoic principles for uncertainty and feeling trapped
As the video below leads with: “In times of great uncertainty, the ability to keep calm isn’t a unnecessary luxury.”
The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used a lot in terms of Covid-19 and lockdown but the reality is that although it may be unprecedented in our lifetime, especially those of us born after the WWII, this level of trapped ness and uncertainty is not truly unprecedented. Over the centuries there is a knowing that the future hasn’t happened yet which holds a great deal of power. Lessons from those who’ve comes through such experiences before us such as the Stoics and their Stoicism can be a source of help and support for keeping our cool, our calm and our capacity to respond.
Don’t confuse predicability with certainty
We often confuse certainty with predictability. So what’s the difference between the two? Certainty is when what’s predicted to happen does happen. Notice how certainty is when you combine prediction with the time it takes for that prediction to happen. You can often be reasonably certain but rarely absolutely certain until the ingredient of time has moved from being in the future to being in the past.
This does not mean that you can’t have influence over the future and we can steer our paths using predictability (in much the same way as insurance companies attempt to predict future risks and use risk quantification techniques to convert them into pricing formulas). Coming to terms with the fact that there is never any certainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because when everything is certain there is no potential.
It has taken me a long time to learn this and it’s not like I’ve fully mastered it yet. I was so uncomfortable with uncertainty that I wrote my masters thesis on the subject, all 24000 words of it. At the time, I thought I was doing it for academic benefit, but with the benefit of hindsight I know that I was doing it to benefit my own psychological outlook. When we realise that certainty is an illusion, we can better come to terms and appreciate that living is inherently uncertain and that actually therein lies the power of potential.
Your brain is driving your behaviour
With heightened uncertainty and feeling trapped our survival response or the Fight / Flight / Freeze response goes into overdrive. With adrenaline and cortisol flooding our brains, survival behaviour takes over from ‘business as usual’ behaviour or what’s often referred to a Rest and Repair response or Rest and Digest response.
Faced with a perceived threat, our brains make split-second risk assessments. As we outlined in our Animals and Triangles blog, threats can be classified as four animals: a cat, a dog, a wolf and a tiger based on likelihood and impact.
Risk of cats and tigers
So while the likelihood of encountering a tiger is pretty rare, the impact of meeting one would be high. The opposite is true of encountering a cat. But our brains are hardwired to immediately assume everything is a tiger and then downgrade the risk from there. From a survival perspective this makes perfect sense. If you were to assume that everything is a cat, chances are you’d be dead by the time you’d realise that this ‘cat’ is actually a tiger.
It’s up to us to put the training into practise to help us discern what we are actually facing and practice responding in the most constructive and helpful way. This brain and behaviour training is vital to your ability to respond well to what’s going on at any given time.
You can learn more about how your brain is driving your behaviour in this talk called Proportionate and Appropriate Response to Covid-19 video that I did back in March.
How do you respond to uncertainty and feeling trapped?
Stop to consider how you are responding? Consider what is your default or habit energy? How do you act? The following can be seen as a shorthand (and of course we can all do some or all of the behaviours) Do you get angry or frustrated, this would be the Fight aspect. Do you get anxious and hyper vigilant, this would be the Flight aspect. Do you avoid and ignore what’s happening this would be the Freeze aspect.
The FFF response (Fight – Flight – Freeze) unchecked leads to AAA behaviours (Anger – Anxiety – Avoidance).
Learning how you respond and behave will provide you with helpful information that you can use to support yourself at the moment and figure out what you need to do in terms of next steps to help you feel more in the driving seat of your experience.
You can learn more about the Fight-Flight-Freeze response in this video (where I’m talking to Selica Lee survival training expert) on the PeakSurvival YouTube channel
The movie of your mind
A helpful way to look at the current situation is by seeing your thoughts and feelings as a movie that is playing out in your mind. You will know that when you’re watching an actual movie, what happens in that movie affects how you feel and think in that moment. If you’re watching a horror movie, chances are you’re feeling some feelings of fear or alertness even if there’s nothing threatening happening in your actual environment, snuggled up on the sofa. If you’re watching a comedy, what’s making you laugh is not happening in your life but all the same it’s flooding your body with laughter chemicals (which by the way are great for the Rest and Repair response).
So what genre is the movie you are creating? Is it a thriller, horror, action movie, comedy, romance, drama? If you’re struggling with anger, anxiety or avoidance chances are you’re creating movies with an ending you don’t want. It can be helpful to check out what kind of thinking you are doing. And yup, thinking is an activity like anything else. Common thought patterns that become unhelpful are snowballing (learn more about thought patterns in this blog) where the movie is likely to be a horror movie with a terrible ending.
Time for some changes to the script?
Is your experience right now really like the last scary movie you saw? The future as you are imagining hasn’t actually happened yet. Your body and feelings will however be responding to the movie of your mind as if it was. What are you believing about the future? What’s the movie? What scenarios are you playing out in your mind? Is it helpful?
Remember your ABCs
As always before we can change anything, we need to become aware of what’s going on. You can’t get yourself back on track until you’ve realised you’re off track. The ABC First Aid for Feelings is the most powerful technique you’ve got at this point.
Awareness — Consider what movie you are creating/playing in your mind? What are you thinking, feeling and doing?
Breath/body — Give yourself a few breaths (deep, shallow, whatever works for you). The breath is only ever in real time. You can’t catch up on it from last week or bank it for the future. By stopping and taking a breath, you help to bring yourself back to the present.
Shuffle your shoulders and wriggle your toes. You might even want to utilise additional resources to help you connect with your breath and your body.
I’ve created and uploaded two bespoke meditations to the Insight Timer platform. These are designed to help you slow down and get you more grounded:
- Counting back from 100 — tapping the brakes on the speed of your thinking
- Mindfulness of finding your feet
Why not try them both and see which works best for you?
Choice — As always, is how you’re thinking helpful? What are you making it mean? What’s within your sphere of influence? If you’re feeling trapped, you usually feel like you don’t have a choice. Is this actually true? If you were to have a choice, what might it be? If uncertainty is impacting you, get curious about what’s within your sphere of influence? What’s predictable? What potential is there because of the uncertainty?
You can read more about this technique in the ABC for Feelings blog. It provides a helpful way to deal with unhelpful situations by interrupting your state and giving you that breathing space to shift from being more stressed to being more calm. The more you practice it and become proficient you in using it, the more natural and effortless it will feel.
How do I know if it’s helpful?
One of the questions I often get asked is, How do I know if what I’m thinking is helpful or unhelpful? As a rule of thumb, if you’ve done a thought a few times like one to four times, it’s likely to be helpful. However, if you’ve done that thinking dozens of times, you’re more than likely on a roundabout of unhelpful thoughts. Become aware of that and make different choices.
The second indicator of whether what you’re thinking is helpful or unhelpful is how it makes you feel about yourself. Does it make you feel good about yourself or bad? If it makes you feel good about yourself (notice this about you and not the situation itself), chances are it’s helpful. If it makes you feel bad about yourself, chances are that your inner critic is working overtime and it’s not helpful.
Mind the gap between perception and reality
The reason why the ABC First Aid for Feelings is so important and powerful is that it helps create that space. The space between stimulus (whatever is happening inside your head or around you) and response (what you are thinking, feeling or doing about it). It is in this space that you find your choice.
As Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, said:
Resilience is a question of training
Resilience is a question of training. People who are more resilient are that way because they’ve had training — either by choice or because they’ve found themselves in a situation where they’ve needed to be resilient. The situation demanded the training.
As I often say, you don’t learn to swim by watching a documentary. All the preparation and preparedness in the world isn’t going to cut it if you suddenly find yourself in a sink-or-swim situation. It’s only by going out and practicing in the water that you will build your resilience for that type of situation. And the same applies to other situations too.
You can read about how to make the lockdown your masterclass in a previous blog.
So how can you build resilience?
While none of us signed up for the current situation, seeing as it’s going on, we may as well make the most of it and use it to our advantage.
Here are some helpful tips:
- Beliefs – what are you believing about your ability to deal with uncertainty and the unexpected? Whatever you belief: is it helpful? Talk to people you trust and explore what would be more helpful.
- Define — what skills or beliefs do you want to build in order to feel more able fit and agile when it comes to your physical, mental and social health and wellbeing?
- Structure — this is about your daily structures. How are you moving through your day? Is there a rhythm to it? Making your daily rhythm more predictable and constant will create a counter balance to the sense of uncertainty you’re experiencing.
- Practice — the actual art of getting better (practice creates persistence). Factor in when and where you’re going to practice. Be specific about what time of day and where so which room or even the specific table or chair you’ll be using.
- Take advantage of kit/equipment — because why not!? This could be a step tracker app or sunrise alarm. It could be a beautiful tea set so that you can have a moment every day where you savour your favourite tea made in a proper teapot and drinking from a pleasing cup. How about a whiteboard or flipchart where you chart the skills and activities you’re focusing on. Have a think about whatever tools, tips and things will help you hold steady and stay on track.
You can discover more about these in this final PeakSurvival video I collaborated on:
Another key component to building resilience is to have a regular check-in with yourself. It can help by simply providing you with that powerful space between a knee-jerk reaction and a constructive response.
Regular check ins are a great way to identify where you are struggling, allowing you to then make more helpful choices going forward.
To help you with this and give you the time you need, I am running a series of weekly live Monday Mindful Check Ins on the Insight Timer platform. Join me and invest in the time to boost your resilience and practice your ABC.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor