Oct 3, 2020 - Health

A guide for living through extreme uncertainty

Illustration of a chess knight looking through a pair of binoculars.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The wild uncertainty that is 2020 can be psychologically paralyzing, but there are ways to better navigate a future that has never seemed less clear.

Why it matters: If this year has taught us anything, it's that anything can happen. With an uncertain pandemic, election and who knows what else coming, now is the time to prepare yourself to live through an age of anxiety.

What's happening: I mean, what isn't happening?

At this point, I would not be surprised if we discovered aliens tomorrow.

Context: The human brain does not do well with this kind of extreme uncertainty, as my Axios colleague Alison Snyder wrote this week.

  • We are a future-focused species that feels happiest when we think we can plan for and shape our tomorrow. Take that away, and the result can be crippling anxiety.
  • But while we have limited control over the uncertainty we're all facing, there are psychological strategies that can be employed to toughen our resilience.

Details: One technique employed by businesses to plan for the future is strategic foresight.

  • The key here is that, especially in times of significant uncertainty, we need to plan not for one possible future, but for many potential alternatives.
  • Doing so "can help us better anticipate possible circumstances and — importantly —adapt when those circumstances threaten our ability to achieve our goals," writes Kristel Van der Elst, CEO of The Global Foresight Group, in MIT Tech Review.
  • In the case of COVID-19, that means envisioning futures where the virus comes under control — admittedly a possibility that's looking less and less likely — and ones where the coronavirus continues affecting our lives for months or even years.

As we plan for a growing number of potential alternative futures, we can assert some control by identifying and clarifying the goals we want to achieve in the time ahead.

  • Just as the captain of an airliner wouldn't put his craft on autopilot in the middle of a storm, this is not the moment to continue your old life in the blind hope that you'll simply reach your destination.
  • Living through extreme uncertainty means accepting that there are very few certain answers to any question.
  • For example, there are health risks to sending children to school in the middle of the pandemic, but there are also educational risks to keeping them at home. While it's vital to be as informed as possible about the potential consequences of either choice, ultimately it's up to the individual to identify what's more important and make choices accordingly.

Yes, but: In a fluid situation like a pandemic, you also need a backup plan for those choices.

  • The biggest mistake you can make in a time of uncertainty is to be locked into a course of action with no willingness to alter that course when circumstances change.
  • To use the example of school again, while you may decide sending your children to in-person classes is the right choice now, you should be ready to reassess that decision should case numbers begin to rise in your community.

Lastly, we all need to accept the fact that the months to come will be really, really hard.

  • If the first stage of the pandemic was one of panic and adrenaline, and the second was marked by a too-brief hope that life might be able to return to normal, know that we're now facing a period of unknown duration where the one certainty is that things will likely get worse.
  • Anxiety in the face of that reality isn't pathological. It's all too human.

The bottom line: Hope for the best, plan for the worst — all of the worsts — and as much as possible, stay focused on what's most important to you.

  • And please wear a mask.
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