The Certainty of Uncertainty: Coping during a public health crisis

Contributed by Christine Forte, LMHC

“What if rather than being disheartened by the ambiguity, the uncertainty of life, we accepted it and relaxed into it?” – Pema Chodron

Wherever you are in the world, you have likely been keeping track of the news about the unfolding spread of novel coronavirus. There are so many questions: how dramatically will it spread across the world? How serious is it? What can be done about it? Exactly how worried should we be right now? A cloud of uncertainty swirls around the spread of the virus, the epicenter focused on China.

Having just returned to the US after ten years living in Shanghai, currently my practice focuses primarily on working online with clients in China. All of them have been impacted by this public health crisis, in a multitude of ways. Even though for the large part the expat community in Shanghai has not been directly impacted the virus, life has changed. For those still present in the city, work and school have been cancelled or moved to online, restrictions set on going to public places, masks are mandatory, apartment compounds are closely monitoring who goes in and out. For those who had been traveling for Chinese New Year outside of China as the illness escalated, many have been unable to return to their Shanghai homes.

Life overseas, and really life in general, is riddled with uncertainty. In fact, we could say that some of the only guarantees we have in life are that we will have to face times of change and uncertainty. There are the more mundane moments of uncertainty: will my visa application be approved, the work contracted renewed, the products that I’d like to have for my new baby found? And then there can be more dramatic moments, when someone is in an accident, or arrested, or conflict breaks out in the area, or in the case of coronavirus, a new illness is identified to be spreading.

It may feel manageable to overcome the uncertainty in the smaller moments, to acquaint ourselves with it, to find ways to calm our anxious thoughts, to relax, to engage in self-care, to, in Pema Chodron’s words, relax into it. But how, when the uncertainty becomes so loud and dramatic, do we manage to do this? How can we manage to quiet the panic that wells within us with each new piece of information or at our lack of control over the situation?

In this time when the uncertainty is so much louder than usual, it is not uncommon for people to have moments where they feel overwhelmed by fear of the coulds and the maybes. This fear that wells up can contain different narratives: it may relate to a fear of the virus itself or it may center around fears related to the measures being taken to contain the virus. Governments and airlines have taken dramatic action to contain the virus, which are themselves great sources of concern for the dramatic impact that they have on daily life and coping, but then on top of this rumors abound for what there could be to come. For example, for many expats still in china, hearing that flights from China to the US had all been cancelled was a strong trigger of anxiety. Even for those who were not planning to leave, hearing that options to do so would be extremely limited was unnerving. Likewise for when consulates have recalled staff. And then there are the internal dilemmas, the moments of wondering if the right decision has been made: for people who have chosen to stay they likely had good reasons for doing so. But it can be hard to stand by these choices when others in their lives are encouraging them to do otherwise.

A first step that can be helpful for those experiencing anxiety around all of this uncertainty is to try to connect to the fact that they are not alone in their experience. Even if they may be physically alone in their apartment at the moment, trying to connect to the knowledge that they are not the only ones who are struggling or suffering. Connecting in mindfulness or in meditation to the fact that there are many others in the world who are struggling or who are afraid or who may doubt their decisions can be a source of comfort and solidarity. We can never accurately compare our struggles or suffering to anyone else’s but we can know that all human beings have times of suffering at some point in their lives.

Another strategy that can be useful in coping with the ups and downs that come with experiencing either the daily life impacts of the lockdowns or fears of the virus itself can be to do some journaling exercises. While I would not presume to say that these offer an immediate resolution to anyone’s situation, I do find that they can be helpful for reducing distress. Writing can be useful to help us to commit more strongly to a new or different way of thinking. When we are trying to reshape a particular mental narrative it can reinforce it. There are a few different ways to approach this.

One can be that in moments of feeling encouraged, write a letter to yourself to read when you’re feeling discouraged or afraid. What would you want that version of yourself to be able to keep in mind? Commit to reading over this for encouragement when you are feeling afraid.

For fearful moments, another strategy can be to write down the things you are afraid of. What exactly are they? What do you fear they could lead to? Get as much to the heart of these fears as you can. Then, with the attitude of a curious scientist, examine them more closely – how likely are they to happen? What are some reasons that you feel pretty certain that they wouldn’t? Or if you do genuinely believe that there’s a chance they could, how would you cope? How do you know that the situation would be temporary and you would get through it? Mentally anchor yourself in this, knowing that you now have thought through how you can and cope with each day, one at a time.

As with any time in our lives we have no way to fully know what will happen next. And so instead of seeking security in certainty about the future, we keep taking the next steps that are needed to care for ourselves and our loved ones, planning for tomorrow where we can. Knowing that overall our certainty lies not in anything external but in our own abilities to cope with each challenge that may arise.

Author: Christine Forte, LMHC

Christine Forte is a counselor and coach to the globally mobile. She works mostly online with a focus on seeing clients based in China, as she lived and worked in Shanghai for 10 years.

Her main areas of specialization are relationships, life transitions, motherhood and finding career purpose.