The human brain is a prediction engine. A lot of the knowledge that you gain from experience is used to figure out what is likely to happen next. When you walk into a conference room before the start of a meeting and see other people in attendance, you feel comfortable that the meeting is going to start soon. When you see a colleague walking up the hall who works in marketing, you predict that you’ll soon be talking about a new campaign.
When things go as you predict, you feel comfortable. At the start of that meeting in the conference room with your colleagues filing in, you can sit down relaxed and talk with the person sitting next to you. If, however, you walked into that same room and found it empty—or filled with people you didn’t recognize or expect to see—you would probably feel uneasy. You might pull out your calendar to see if the time or location of the meeting had been changed. You would pay a lot of attention to what was going on.
Of course, a little uncertainty makes life interesting. If every day were identical to the one before and if every colleague said what you expected them to say, then there wouldn’t be anything left to learn and it would be hard to pay attention to anything going on around you.
But too much uncertainty can create anxiety. That is a big reason why the past year has been so difficult. The pandemic has made it hard to engage in activities that were normal in the past, and the rules around what we are and are not allowed to do change with the severity of the pandemic. The pandemic has also influenced the economy, which has led many people to be uncertain about their future job prospects. Add to that the uncertainty of the U.S. political situation, and it’s no wonder we’re all feeling stressed.
The big problem is that uncertainty leads you to want to pay attention to make the world more predictable. That is why you check your calendar again when you are suddenly not sure you’re in the right conference room for a meeting. But when everything around is uncertain and that uncertainty won’t be resolved quickly, this kind of response doesn’t help. Instead, it keeps you glued to TV coverage, doomscrolling on social media, and having long speculative conversations with friends. And because these activities don’t reduce the actual uncertainty around, they have no long-term impact on your anxiety and you find it hard to be productive.
Instead, there are three things you should do:
Check in about your media consumption
Much of the uncertainty may not be in your immediate environment, but rather in the state of the world overall. Oddly, your home life is probably quite predictable right now, because many of us are working from home and/or searching for employment. So unless your job necessitates it, wean yourself off of a steady diet of mainstream and social media. Give yourself permission not to track every update. You might pick a time once or twice a day to catch up on headlines. That will allow you to focus on the relatively predictable life you’re living.
Think about what you can control
Focus your work activities on things that are within your sphere of control. Make a good to-do list of tasks at work and devote your efforts to knocking things off that list. Keep track of what you have accomplished so that you can see the results of the work you have put in. At the end of each workday, celebrate your accomplishments.
Increase your resilience
Upping your resilience can take many forms. Reach out to a friend. Eat good food. Get some regular exercise. Don’t check your phone for an hour before going to bed so you can establish a regular sleep routine. Feeling well physically will help you handle the emotional load of the world around you.