My client said, “I’m bored and agitated. It isn’t a good combination because it makes me reckless.” His thoughtful insight rings true: The country’s foundation is defined by COVID-19 with recommendations for social and physical distancing, combined with little sense of a communal endgame (the political polarization and fragmentation is staggering).

We are living in the presence of uncertainty. The psychological nature of uncertainty causes tremendous anxiety. Our survival brain is always updating the world, making judgments about what is safe and what it not. When we are uncertain about what to expect and how to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, our psyche fills in the blanks with worst-case scenarios, including jumping to conclusions and over-personalizing threats. Our survival instincts are neurologically hardwired to do anything for the sake of certainty.

The vicious cycle of hearing the words, “I don’t know,” is increasingly unsettling in our individual and collective worlds. There is a great deal that is beyond our control. Social science research shows that uncertainty intensifies affective reactions that take us away from doing those things that soothe us and help mollify distress. The psychological effect of uncertainty speaks to what we do not know, leading us to feel increasingly troubling feelings of alarm. Understanding this, it makes sense why we take risks in this contemporary time that may be more dangerous than we typically would.

When certainty is questioned, stress increases, and our internal “Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!” response goes haywire. Our mindset during crisis is everything. Our best ally is to find where we can be in charge – where we can do something certain Finding an upside to a downside situation while feeling out of control, then moving forward one step at a time contributes to our sense of well-being. This is not easy because we are overriding the survival instincts of our natural brain. It is a worthy practice, though, to think “I wonder” when alarmed. This is a cognitive aid that will put our rudders in the water of the pandemic storm.

Jackson Rainer, PhD, ABPP, is a psychologist at CHRIS Counseling Center-DeKalb. He can be reached at [email protected].


Jackson Rainer, PhD.
[email protected]
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