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Responding to Uncertainty During Coronavirus

By Anne Muscat, PhD

In the past few days and weeks, with the coronavirus pandemic, there is great uncertainty as to what the future looks like. This is likely more uncertainty than many of us have experienced in our lives.  Know that you are not alone. Uncertainty is one of the most challenging human experiences. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, it results in you not feeling in control, and that is okay.

As humans and particularly as athletes we like to feel in control and this helps us feel healthy and happy. We normally operate from a place of control and adapting to relatively predictable structured life. The current coronavirus pandemic environment is challenging our sense of control. Just like a volleyball game we cannot predict the future and have no control over future events. Worrying about what might happen in the future is an attempt to gain certainty. Attempt to gain control. An attempt to manage anxiety.

But none of this actually gives us more control. In this environment uncertainty is inevitable. Spinning our thoughts and behaviors around and around takes valuable energy and time. Instead we can create a plan to manage the self-isolation. The plan you create for self-isolation is helpful particularly if you make it FLEXIBLE for what to do to protect yourself and others. However, it is impossible to think through every scenario. You want some energy and resilience to help you adapt to the real-time changes or to events that you might not have thought of or predicted. You also want energy to maintain a healthy immune system.

Therefore, just like your experience as an athlete you want to use your skills to meet the challenge. Create a FLEXIBLE plan to safeguard yourself. Think about what you can reasonably control. Think about what you like to do and is within the Canadian Health Care self-isolation guidelines. How to reduce the risk of infection and what to do if you fall ill.

It is helpful to think of ways to connect with your family, friends and teammates that are within recommendations. Using the internet to connect via what’s app, FaceTime, Zoom. Think about REALLY connecting online? Set specific time in your schedule to have an online connection with a friend. Think about how much structure in your day you would enjoy. Create time for books or music. How can you and your teammates act in solidarity as a collective to contribute to reducing the spread of the virus? In contrast, it is not beneficial to try to figure out how much the official statistics are inaccurate, or how many people who in your neighborhood may have been exposed, or whether this virus is going to prevent you from competing.

When you design your self-isolation plan focus on what you can control. Allow uncertainty, experience it and respond in helpful ways.

Below is a step-by-step approach you can use when you experience uncertainty. The acronym for this approach is RELIEF

1.     Respond to the discomfort of uncertainty in a way that allows you to disengage. The following are some helpful ways to disengage. Body response (A) Breathe – take 6 cycles of breath (4 in and 6 out) for one minute to trigger your parasympathetic/calming system. Mind response (B) say “I can do things that will help and safeguard myself.” “I am in control.” Emotional response (C) bring some gratitude, kindness and compassion to help ease the discomfort of uncertainty. As an elite athlete you may typically be hard on yourself but, now is the time to be gentle and kind with yourself.

2.     Expand your awareness by taking the sharp focus off the discomfort of uncertainty and taking in the sights and sounds around you. Look around you. What are the things in your environment? What is outside your window? What does this time allow you to do? This step allows you to see the uncertainty as a part of your experience, not all of it, thereby further reducing the intensity of discomfort and allowing room for a reframe of your experience.

3.     Label this experience as “uncertainty” or “unhelpful thinking” or give it some other short non-judgmental descriptive label. Practice detachment and looking at the fearful experience from the outside. This will allow space for the problem-solving part of your brain to kick in. Labeling and detaching encourages the problem solver to dominate over the unhelpful “reactor.” This is exactly what you want– activate the parts of your brain that are most useful.

4.     Internal Feel refers to the awareness of the uncomfortable feeling -“Being comfortable with that uncomfortable internal feeling.”  Take time to connect with your body. You might feel the tension in your chest or shoulders, the heaviness in your head, discomfort in your stomach, or shortness of breath. Allow those feelings.  

5.     Friends and Family– Social distancing does not mean social disconnection from friends and family. In contrast, during this increase time of uncertainty, you want to reach out and connect with each other ever more, albeit in ways that avoid close physical proximity. Fortunately, your communication channels and social networks provide opportunity to not only seek support but reach out and provide support. To create a community of solidarity, a team that represents solidarity. Your social community helps ease the uncertainty.