How to Stay Optimistic When Everything Feels Uncertain

When you've had a tough year, December 31st is about way more than a changing number. For some, the coming of a new year signals a sigh of relief as you look forward to better times. For others, it means swimming in anxiety while worrying about whether the days ahead will improve or if the uncertainty will drag on forever.

Rarely, if ever, have we had to cope with the ongoing uncertainty of this past year. As a result of the global pandemic and all its implications, many are struggling with anxiety, worry and overall poor mental well-being. In situations such as this, even the most optimistic can find it difficult to stay upbeat and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And there is a good reason for this: Humans have a strong need for control and predictability. From an evolutionary perspective, the brain is wired to anticipate danger, prepare for it and fight against it; uncertainty signals danger and stress response.

Jack Nitschke, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, says, "Uncertainty lays the groundwork for anxiety because anxiety is always future-oriented." The human brain can imagine all the worst things that could happen. Thus, the more uncertainty there is—especially when coupled with frightening potential outcomes—the more likely the brain is to conjure up and fixate on the worst-case scenarios.

So how in the world are we supposed to remain optimistic and function well? First of all, it's important to remember that we deal with uncertainty all the time! Some uncertainty is of less importance (Will we like the taste of the new recipe we just spent hours preparing?), and other times it is life-changing (What will be the outcome of the medical diagnosis your loved one just received?). The unpredictability of life is a given, and it is possible to cope and thrive. The key is building the tools to thrive.

1. Begin with self-compassion. Feeling fearful, sad, disappointed, frustrated and even angry is normal so don't feel guilty thinking you should be able to handle this better. When we try to push away emotions, they intensify. Try journaling or writing down your feelings. Pen to paper helps us gain control over our thoughts and improves mental health.

2. Accept the current season you are in. Remember the Serenity Prayer? "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." Be okay with not knowing. The truth is, very little in life is certain. In the end, all we can control is our mindset and reactions to what happens. When you try to control uncontrollable outcomes, you end up feeling powerless.

3. Focus on what you can control. Despite the rug having been pulled out from under you, much remains within your control. While we may not be able to control inevitable events of circumstances, we can control our approach. If you've lost your job and are fearful about your future, for example, focus on the things that are in your control such as beefing up your resume or contacting network connections. You may even see an opportunity for change or self-improvement that you hadn't recognized before!

4. Avoid unhealthy coping strategies. When times are unpredictable, many gravitate towards potentially dangerous pastimes. Habits like excessive drinking, overeating, compulsive shopping, binge-watching television or playing video games can numb anxiety and discomfort. In small doses, they can be helpful for a short escape, but in excess, it will only lead to additional problems over the long haul. 

5. Stick to routines and rituals that work for you. As much as possible, keep your daily routine stable. Follow your work and leisure time schedule as closely as it has been during more stable times. Stay tightly connected to family and friends you care about, plan fun activities and focus on laughter and things that bring you joy.

6. Stay in the present. Occupying your brain with work, chores, entertainment or other activities unrelated to the source of your uncertainty may be the best way to shrink it down to a manageable size. If you find yourself slipping into worry mode way too often, it will make things worse. You may think if you agonize enough, you will find a solution, but rarely does that work. Instead, it saps your energy, causes insomnia and robs you of the opportunity to enjoy the present. Mindfulness training and meditation have been shown to reduce worry and enhance the ability to stay fully engaged in the present. Consider using an app like Calm or Headspace to start building a healthy mindfulness practice before you need it.

7. Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Even during bad times, there is good. Research shows that seeking out and appreciating things that create awe can alleviate discomfort when going through uncertain times. Try stargazing, hiking or even watching documentaries about the wonder of nature. When we seek out good in the world, the light will shine and help us through our darkest times.

When uncertainty threatens to overtake your mental and physical well-being, revisit these strategies and find the light at the end of the tunnel.