How Planning for Tomorrow Can Ease Uncertainty Today

Not knowing the future creates physical and emotional stress. Making the right kind of plan can help you cope—and move forward.

In the kitchen of their home in Brimfield, Ohio, Craig and Heather Wargawsky have a wall-size family calendar. As recently as early March, that calendar was booked solid for the next two months.

“It was so full,” says Craig. “Crazy full.”

Craig, a 45-year-old high school teacher, was planning to take a group of students on a spring break trip to New York City—and then take his daughter, Leila, on a separate trip to Los Angeles to celebrate her 18th birthday. Meanwhile, Heather, a 44-year-old elementary school teacher, was expecting to travel to San Francisco for a work conference. The calendar also had entries for Leila’s work schedule, prom, and high school graduation party; practices and matches for the couple’s son, Dylan, a 16-year-old high school tennis player; and a planned family summer road trip to Seattle.

The coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

The trips were canceled. The restaurant where Leila worked shut down. Dylan’s tennis season abruptly ended. Schools closed, marooning the entire family at home to teach and learn remotely. The stock market dropped precipitously, leaving Craig and Heather to worry about their retirement plans and savings.

By May, the calendar was blank, with the family’s expectations replaced by wait and see.

“It got to the point where I would write June-ish just for fun,” Heather says. “But it meant nothing. And we didn’t know how long any of this would last.”

When it comes to not knowing what tomorrow will bring, the Wargawskys are hardly unique. Across the United States, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has created a secondary pandemic of individual and collective uncertainty, throwing the future into question.

Will I get sick with the virus? What about someone I love? Is my job secure? Are my investments? When will schools reopen? Or my favorite restaurant? What happens after the November election? Will there be a vaccine next year?

“From a health perspective, from a political perspective, and from an economic perspective, we live in uncertain times,” says Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology. “It surrounds us all. And what happens when people are placed in a situation with a lot of uncertainty? The answer is that there is a lot of stress and distress, playing out in many different ways.”

The good news? According to experts, there also are effective ways to cope with that stress and distress. Making plans for the future is one of those ways. It has played a big part in helping the Wargawskys remain resilient, regain a sense of control over their daily lives, and even move forward with financial confidence—all of which can be challenging when uncertainty reigns.

“Somewhere in the middle”

Kate Sweeny has been studying the effects of uncertainty for years. A psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, she focuses on how people deal with the ambiguity of waiting periods—including law students waiting for their bar exam scores, voters waiting on election night winners and losers, and patients waiting on the results of biopsies.

The common denominator among these different groups? “Uncertainty is generally not great for us,” she says. “We find it to be uncomfortable. It creates worry. It affects people’s sleep and health.”

Not all uncertainty is bad. The suspense of not knowing how a mystery novel or favorite television show is going to end can be thrilling—otherwise, we wouldn’t need spoiler alerts—and some research has found that people feel more excited about and work harder on tasks when the size of a promised reward is uncertain.

But when the stakes are higher and potentially negative, our tolerance for uncertainty dramatically decreases. Studies have found that people would rather suffer a strong electric shock immediately than be forced to wait up to 15 minutes for a more mild jolt, and that physical and emotional measures of stress peak when uncertainty is highest.

“People will say anecdotally and in our research studies that they would rather get bad news now than not know what is coming,” Sweeny says. “But in a rational world, that doesn’t make sense—why not prefer having hope for good news? So the question is, why do we respond to uncertainty this way?”

The answer, Sweeny and other experts suspect, lies in human evolution. Tens of thousands of years ago, our distant ancestors who were more at ease when life was predictable—and, crucially, more anxious or fearful when it wasn’t—might have been more likely to survive life’s vicissitudes and pass those traits on.

“There’s a utility for being uncomfortable when you don’t know what is coming,” Sweeny says. “We have this very complex system of emotions because they do things for us. They motivate us to act in ways that are beneficial for our well-being and survival. If you’re too comfortable with uncertainty, then you won’t work to resolve it—and many more bad things could happen.”

Of course, people often can’t resolve the sources of uncertainty in their lives. That’s especially true of COVID-19. “It’s a novel virus, which means we don’t understand it very well,” Epstein says. “So it’s hard for us to make predictions. Think of all the predictions that have been made going back to February, and think of how they have been changing.

“Alongside that, we keep hearing different and conflicting things from our government and the experts associated with our government, day after day, which makes it hard to know what is going on and who to trust.”

Earlier this year, a study on the effects of pandemic lockdowns in the United Kingdom found that nearly 25 percent of respondents were suffering greater anxiety and depression in lockdown than they had before lockdown—and that the key factors for how people were coping were their “intolerance of uncertainty” and how they handled that intolerance.

That finding wasn’t surprising. Low tolerance of uncertainty in individuals has been associated with depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to Epstein, one of the oldest experiments in psychology involves sending a laboratory rat down a runway. Sometimes the rat receives food; sometimes, an electric jolt. “What happens is that the rat starts to run down, and then back, and then back and forth,” he says. “Eventually, the rat will just stop somewhere in the middle.”

Uncertainty, Epstein says, can have the same effect on people. “It’s very, very hard to make decisions in this pandemic,” he says. “Should I buy a new car or not? Buy some stock or not? Go on vacation or not? Quit my job knowing I might not be able to get another one?

“Uncertainty is not just stressful. It’s immobilizing. We can end up like that rat on the runway. And when you’re stuck and know you need to be doing something, that can add to the stress.”

What uncertainty does to...

Your brain

In times of uncertainty, the brain demands extra energy, and activity increases in areas associated with fear and hypervigilance. Persistent uncertainty—the kind that comes with living in a volatile and insecure environment for extended periods of time—can alter the architecture of our brains in ways that not only damage our ability to cope with uncertainty but also create a higher long-term risk of depression and cognitive impairment.

Your body

Uncertainty can trigger our fight-or-flight response, a cascade of stress hormones that make us sweaty, tense our muscles, dilate our pupils, speed up our breathing and heart rate, and prepare us to take on immediate threats. One study found that all physical measures of stress max out when uncertainty is highest.

Your thinking

Uncertainty affects our decision-making, making us more reluctant to take risks and less likely to focus on future rewards. It also can alter our perception of time, creating a sense of being trapped in a traumatic, slow-moving present and cut off from both the past and future.

Your feeling

When we can’t accurately predict the future, we tend to feel nervous, worried, and uneasy about what will come next. In fact, research shows that waiting for the outcomes of tumor biopsies and fertility treatments creates more anxiety than receiving a diagnosis. Scientists also have found that low tolerance of uncertainty is associated with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

How to cope with uncertainty

The coronavirus pandemic is causing unprecedented uncertainty—and with that, stress and anxiety. Michael Wetzel, chief medical director for Equitable, says that some of the best ways to cope are simple: Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, get a good night’s sleep, and take proper care of any underlying medical conditions. “It sounds so basic, but these are things that will relieve stress and help your immune system,” he says. “And keeping yourself physically healthy will help keep you mentally healthy.”

Here are four other ways to care for yourself:

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GE-3289251 (10/2020) (Exp. 10/2022)