Our brains weren’t wired to deal with the “psychological pandemic” of not knowing what the future holds. Here’s how to cope with living in limbo.

If theres one defining feature of the coronavirus pandemic, its uncertainty. Will there be a vaccine? When can schools safely reopen? Will I still have a job next week? Should I book a spring vacation abroad? A crisis that wed all hoped would be short-lived is dragging on indefinitely, and the list of unanswered questions keeps growing.
Ive started thinking about our current situation as being marked by two pandemics, Kate Sweeny says. The viral one, of course, but also a psychological pandemic of uncertainty. A professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, Sweeny specializes in understanding how people cope with ambiguity. All her research points towards one conclusion: We dont cope very well.
Waiting periods are marked by two existentially challenging states: We dont know whats coming, and we cant do much about it, Sweeny explains. Together, those states are a recipe for anxiety and worry. People would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news than the anxiety of remaining in limbo.
Thats what researchers at three institutions in the UK found in a 2013 experiment, when they attached electrodes to 35 subjects and asked them to choose between receiving a sharp shock immediately or waiting for a milder one. The vast majority chose the more painful option, just to get it out of the way. Its counterintuitive, admits Giles Story, one of the academics behind the study. But its a testament to how anxiety-inducing and miserable it can be to have things looming in the future.
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It may be counterintuitive, but its actually something we see play out again and again in the scientific literature. Whether its receiving a cancer diagnosis, finding out a round of IVF was unsuccessful, or discovering that you failed an exam, for many of us, unequivocally bad news is easier to deal with than the ambiguous waiting period that precedes it. Knowing what were dealing with, even if its crappy, gives us some agency. Uncertainty leaves us scrambling to regain an element of controlby hoarding toilet paper, for example.
Ironically, while actions like these might provide temporary relief, they can have the opposite effect in the long term, sending our anxiety levels through the roof. People who struggle with uncertainty engage in behaviors to try to feel more certain, like taking their temperature repeatedly, says Ryan Jane Jacoby, a staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. But these actions only serve to perpetuate uncertainty in the long run, and they can really take a toll on your mental health, as they start to take up more time and energy.
So if stockpiling a years supply of toilet paper isnt going to ease the anxiety that comes with living in a state of limbo, what will? Answering that question involves understanding why exactly we struggle so much with uncertainty. According to Mark Freeston, a professor of clinical psychology at Newcastle University in the UK, its all to do with evolution. Its of no use for a newborn to understand where danger is, because they cant do anything about it. What is useful is understanding how to find signs of safety. That means learning to recognize the people or surroundings we know keep us secureand being suspicious of the ones we arent familiar with.
As evolutionary psychologists have argued, being intolerant of uncertainty has survival value, Freeston says. So instead of wondering why some people struggle to deal with uncertainty, the better question to ask is, how are some people able to cope with it? The answerwhich Freeston and the other experts I spoke to have spent their entire professional careers working oncould help make long periods of uncertainty more bearable. Here are some of the coping mechanisms they’ve found can help.
When youre dealing with uncertain situations, its tempting to both fixate on things youve done in the pastcould last week’s trip to the grocery store be to blame for my sore throat today?and worry about what the future will look like. During waiting periods, I would always find myself doing a lot of mental time travel, thinking back to what I could have done differently, and playing out various future scenarios, says Sweeny. Dwelling excessively on what could have been and what might beruminating, to use the technical termis exhausting, and unless it is brought under control, can triggerdepression and anxiety.