5 CBT Strategies to help cope in uncertain times

Uncertainty can feed anxiety 

We dislike uncertainty because we fear the possibility that negative events will become reality.  A lack of knowledge feeds the anxiety.


How can we deal with the uncertainty without being overwhelmed by it? 

Here are 5 suggestions based on psychological science:

*Please note, our blog is not to be used in place of therapy.
If you need psychological support, book an appointment with our Psychologists*


1. Realise our minds “trick” us into thinking the worst 

Humans are not good at predicting how they will react emotionally to either negative or positive events in the future. When faced with uncertainty, our minds imagine various bad outcomes down the road.  We then tend to overestimate how much these bad events will affect us and how long the emotional impact will last.

Psychologists Daniel Gilbert from Harvard and Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia found this “impact bias” to be prevalent in a variety of situations.  As we fret about losing money in the stock market or about traveling to Queensland during cyclone season, it is important to remember that we are generally more resilient than we think.  When a bad thing actually happens, most of us won’t take it as hard as we might have predicted beforehand.

One reason for impact bias is an under-appreciation of the natural human tendency to adapt to anything life throws at us.

Most people adjust well to both negative and positive changes, returning to their pre-change life satisfaction levels in a relatively short period of time.  This process, termed “hedonistic adaptation,” applies to the majority of life’s events.  Thus, whatever we fear might happen in the future, we will likely cope with it better and adjust to it faster than anticipated.


 2. Divide and conquer  

Free-floating worry is hardest to conquer.  When we catch our mind hopping from one topic of concern to another, it is time to put our thoughts on paper.

If you are worrying about losing your government contractor job and the dwindling of your kid’s savings account and rising terrorism and so on, you should keep a list of the worry topics.  Then set aside time to examine your list, eliminate redundancies, and go through each item using the following Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT) procedure:  Think through the best, the worst and the most realistic outcome. 

Finally, plan how you would cope with the worst outcome.  This will inoculate you against snowballing next time the worry shows up.


 3. Focus on what you can do now

It is important to distinguish between unproductive worry and problem-solving.

Is there something that’s under your control now that could reduce the uncertainty about the future? That calls for problem-solving.

Regarding financial uncertainty, examples could include finding alternative sources of income, making a plan for reducing spending, talking to relatives about their ability and willingness to help, etc.  If you are concerned about your upcoming travel, make sure to build in extra time at airports and find out specific state restrictions.

Problem-solving is best accomplished in a focused manner: Clearly define the goal, generate multiple solutions, choose the best one and make a detailed implementation plan.  Repeat for each new goal.

Everything that does not fall under problem-solving but is still keeping your mind preoccupied for minutes or hours is worry.  Worry is repetitive and circular. It leads to anxiety and is completely fruitless.  A good CBT strategy to keep worry from consuming your day is to designate a daily 20-minute-long “worry time.”  Whenever worry shows up in your mind, notice it, write down the topic for your worry time, and then redirect your attention toward something else.


 4. Put it in perspective 

It is important to recognise that we already accept uncertainty in many areas of life.

Each time we drive a car we cannot predict what we will encounter on the road—terrible traffic, careless or dangerous drivers, ice, potholes, etc.

We could use an imaginary uncertainty scale that goes from zero to 100 to calibrate how bad things really are.  You should create a mental picture of what zero uncertainty looks like (hint: it does not exist in reality) and, more importantly, what 100 entails.  A score of 100 might mean that you have complete uncertainty about being able to eat today or about having a safe place to sleep, for example.

As one of the Cognitive Therapy founders, Albert Ellis, suggested, it is helpful to realise whether a current situation is really serious or whether our thinking is making it so.

As we find ourselves fretting about uncertainty, we could ask ourselves: “How bad is this, on a scale of zero to 100?”  We just might end up appreciating that things are not as bad as they could be, or as bad as others might be experiencing right now.  The latter phenomenon is known as “downward social comparison.”


 5. Get out of your mind
and into your body

When we get stuck inside our minds worrying about uncertainty, there is nothing better than refocusing attention on our bodies.  From behaviour therapy we know that moving as much as possible, preferably outside, can significantly improve mood and decrease anxiety.

We also know that paying attention to bodily sensations in any given moment can centre us and help disrupt the ruminative loop.  You could focus on your five senses or do a “body scan,” paying attention sequentially to the different parts of your body, from head to toe. Our free Grounding print out can help.