The United States is 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic with no clear end in sight. We’re left in a constant state of uncertainty and unanswered questions: Will I catch the virus? Should unvaccinated children go back to school? Is it safe to go outside? When will this be over?
Jonathan Abramowitz is a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts & Sciences and director of the UNC Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic, where he studies the prevention and treatment of anxiety.
Abramowitz spoke to The Well about why uncertainty is difficult to deal with, why the pandemic is more stressful than other events and how to cope.
Is there a healthy way to think about uncertainty?
It’s important to remember that uncertainty is ubiquitous. There are few things in life that are 100% secure. Anyone who climbs a ladder, drives a car or swims in the ocean is taking a risk where their safety isn’t guaranteed. The same is true of COVID-19, but in a different context. People should use the data, science and evidence they have to make smart decisions about wearing a mask, getting vaccinated or going to public spaces.
Why do our brains dislike uncertainty?
It’s an evolutionary gift and survival mechanism to constantly look out for ourselves. In our minds, uncertainty equals the possibility of danger. It makes sense for animals to be threat- and risk-averse to a certain extent so they stay alive, but it doesn’t always serve us well to be in a constant state of fight or flight.
How is pandemic uncertainty different from other kinds of uncertainty?
First of all, we’re bombarded with information about the pandemic all the time. You can’t turn on the radio, go online or watch television without hearing about the coronavirus.
Secondly, there are all sorts of different opinions and information about the virus. This is a normal consequence of uncertainty. Yes, we have some facts; but we have few guarantees. You don’t hear people debating about whether gravity is real or not, but you do hear people debating about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines. The point is that, unlike with gravity, we just don’t have certainties about the virus.
Lastly, we have very little control as individuals over the pandemic. We can take steps to prevent falling off a ladder by placing it in a level spot, having someone hold it steady and stepping up carefully. With COVID-19, you can wear a mask, get vaccinated and use hand sanitizer, but to some extent you’re also dependent on others around you making smart decisions, and that’s something we can’t be sure of or control.
How can we all better cope with uncertainty?
The first step is recognizing that uncertainty is a fact of life, and that trying too hard to avoid it can become more of a problem than the uncertainty itself. Spending hours and hours researching something stressful (like the pandemic) won’t make your anxiety go away. Instead, it’s likely to provoke more uncertainty and anxiety.
A better coping mechanism would be leaning into the fact that we just can’t be certain about lots of things — including when the pandemic will end and what are the best ways to minimize risk — which is difficult but realistic. But even without guarantees, we can still take measures to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible. Instead of reading about every conspiracy theory or comparing and contrasting contradictory information, stick to a single scientific source to base your decisions about social distancing, mask-wearing and getting vaccinated. Science isn’t perfect, but it’s the most reliable tool we have at hand.
How should parents or guardians talk to their kids about the pandemic without creating panic?
Be honest with your kids if they come to you wanting guarantees. Say something simple such as, “There are some things that we just don’t know for sure — and that’s OK. Although we don’t have the answers to everything, we do know that it’s important to wear masks, get vaccinated (if applicable), use hand sanitizer and stay 6 feet apart.”
Sometimes we forget that kids are little people. They understand and see what’s going on in their communities, and they often see right through parents when they try to sugarcoat or brush things off. Remember, kids are more resilient than we often realize. They can manage uncertainty, too.
If someone is still struggling with uncertainty over the pandemic, what should they do?
If your anxiety is getting in the way or paralyzing you from living your life, or if you find yourself spending too much time checking Google or the various news sources, there is help available. Cognitive behavior therapy is the form of treatment that’s best for this type of anxiety or stress. Get in touch with a local mental health professional who specializes in CBT, or if that isn’t possible, use an online psychological service.