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Well-Being in Uncertain Times: Knowing What and Who to Depend On

By Martha Michael

Sources of Stability

There are some things we all know we can count on. We can learn from our failures. Nothing is more precious than time with loved ones. And your dog is the ace in the hole after a bad day.

Life is filled with uncertainties that increase fear and anxiety, but by recognizing the people you trust and principles you depend on, you can stay grounded when things get rough.

Living With Uncertainty

The American Psychological Association website has an article about studies looking at how people cope with uncertainty. Kate Sweeny, PhD, professor at University of California, Riverside, found that during a period of waiting for important news, people tend to be optimistic until just before they hear the outcome. They drop their hopes at the last minute as a natural way to prepare for the possibility of bad news.

When studying law school graduates awaiting results from the bar exam, Sweeny’s team found that the worst times are at the beginning and the end of the waiting period, but the most optimistic people endure the anticipation with less anxiety than the rest of the population. Participants in the study who ultimately got bad news, including students who didn’t pass the bar exam, were asked if waiting was the hardest part. Their answer was determined by whether they preferred anxiety, which is predominantly the experience while waiting, or anger and disappointment, which occurs following bad news.

“Uncertainty is an under-addressed source of suffering,” Sweeny says. “It’s also something that people may not feel comfortable talking about, so the research is not always straightforward. But the work is worth it. Uncertainty is really important to understand [because] it has a direct impact on people’s lives.”

The research team also studied coping strategies for the fear and anxiety people experience when anticipating impactful information. Results point to achieving “flow” as an effective means to reduce emotional suffering. You enter a state of flow when you’re immersed in an activity, so researchers induced a sense of well-being in participants who either played Tetris or chose a customized, self-reported flow-inducing activity. Based on interviews with subjects, they concluded that it works because focusing on an activity makes time seem to pass more quickly: there’s less room for the distress from uncertainty.

During the quarantine period of COVID-19 Sweeny and her team partnered with researchers in Wuhan, China, and found that people who practiced flow-inducing activities such as running, painting, and gardening, had the same level of well-being as those who hadn’t yet entered a period of quarantine.

People You Can Count On

A big part of maintaining a sense of stability is having people you can turn to for help or guidance, but not everyone is equipped with those qualities. The Business Insider has an article about the kinds of people you need in your life.

  • The Spark - Best in the idea phase of a project, the spark is inspirational and energizes you enough to get started.
  • The Mentor - Offering expertise, guidance and caring, a mentor can be a sounding board as well as a teacher who gently points out your missteps.
  • The Coach - From tough love to your toughest moments in life, a coach gives you the courage to power through it.
  • The Sister - She doesn’t have to be your sibling to know you and be a cheerleader when others give up on you or your efforts fall flat.
  • The Energizer - The positive output of an energizer fuels you forward and gives you the incentive to push through setbacks and suffering.
  • The Believer - Even when you don’t live up to your own expectations, a believer sees your greatness shine through.

The Stabilizing Force of Routine

When coming back from seasons of loss, struggles with addiction, or recovering from trauma, many people find comfort in establishing a routine. Healthy habits provide a stabilizing structure of patterns that contribute to your well-being.

According to the Northwestern Medicine website, having a solid routine can improve your function in several areas:

Sleep quality - Lack of a sleep routine can incite worry about falling behind and periods of wakefulness in which you ruminate about catching up on to-do lists, leading to daily fatigue. The quality of your rest is determined by bedtime habits and impacts your overall health.

Stress level - Finding stress-relieving practices such as yoga or meditation are helpful when you structure them into your schedule. You can counteract a tendency to worry and experience greater well-being when your habits include relaxing activities.

Physical condition - An exercise routine and regular visits to your chiropractor, dentist, and other wellness practitioners help keep you on track physically, which improves your ability to engage in favorite lifestyle choices.

Time management - Developing a routine enables you to prioritize what’s important and it minimizes the burden of constantly feeling behind the eight-ball.

From learning that there’s no free lunch to the belief that kids grow up too fast, most people can count on gaining new perspectives with age. How easily you weather the storms of uncertainty depends in part on your life choices and the pillars that support you. However, when you get to a place where you feel that all’s right with the world, keep in mind one of life’s adages that everyone knows: the only constant is change.

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