As we continue to live through the COVID-19 pandemic, we will all be finding different aspects of this situation a challenge whilst potentially also finding other aspects a comfort. Whilst many of us are focused on an “endpoint”, we might also have just been finding our comfort zone within this.

We are now faced with a reduction of rules around lockdown and are facing several months of changes as the R rate is monitored, shops and venues open, and students return to school. This will raise a lot of “what ifs?” as life begins to change again and again. For many people this is a positive time but for many this will raise worries and concerns.

Uncertainty is totally normal; we can’t be sure about many things in life. For some people though it’s almost like an allergy when the idea of uncertainty arises it creates high levels of stress and you might hear yourself saying things like “I can’t cope not knowing,” “I know the chances of it happening are so small, but it still could happen” or “I need to be 100% sure”. People with these views might find it hard to focus on anything or commit to any decisions as they feel that they need to know how everything is going to pan out before they can move forward so they might feel paralysed by uncertainty.

Often people view worrying as quite a helpful and positive trait. They might see worrying as a way of predicting bad things that are going to happen so there’s no awful surprises and they’re ready for anything that could happen – a way of having control over a very unpredictable period in life.

However, the reality is that worrying rarely helps you predict what is coming next in life. What usually happens is that you end up spending much of your time feeling rough as you focus on all the terrible things that could happen in life instead of doing enjoyable or practical things that would actually help if anything bad were to occur.

There are some signs that you might be too intolerant of uncertainty and might want to do something about it. Are you:

  • Seeking excessive reassurance from others?
  • Constantly making lists?
  • Double checking your work and the work of others?
  • Refusing to delegate tasks to others?
  • Procrastinating/avoiding certain situations?
  • Distracting yourself so you can’t think about genuine issues?

 Remember, unless you can see into the future, you will always be uncertain about some things.

 What can we do about it?

Just being aware that you are doing this is a really important start but if you want to test yourself a bit more and start challenging this behaviour you can set yourself some experiments. Behavioural experiments involve testing out feared predictions and seeing if things are quite as bad (and therefore require as much worrying as you put into them). Write down the following three aspects of a situation:

  • Your feared outcome
  • The actual outcome
  • How you coped with the outcome

This doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t be) anything when there is any real risk of harm but could be something like asking for help, sending an email, visiting the shops; something that deep down you know you can do and are capable of but have some worries about which leads you to avoid thinking or doing any more about.

You can read more about this at the Centre for Clinical Interventions. If you need any more tailored advice, please contact the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing service. 

 Toby Chelms is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and a Student Mental Health and Wellbeing manager at Leeds Trinity University.

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