Travel the in-between time with calm and peace
One day we were going about the business of life and work, and the next day, we had dropped down Alice’s rabbit hole.
As she traversed her Wonderland, Alice was fairly certain that the world as she knew it would be there when she made her way out.
We don’t have that certainty. It’s highly probable that the world as we knew it is gone, and we will emerge into a strange, new world.
Uncertainty makes most of us uncomfortable; some of us find it downright threatening. Nonetheless, it is.
No one can avoid it. It’s part of living.
The only way out is through.
Whether the passage is rocky or smooth, safe or frightening, we need ways of easing our discomfort as we journey the in-between times.
“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.” Pascal
Why Does Uncertainty Scare Us?
Evolution hardwired our brains to fear uncertainty. Stepping outside the cave and into the wild was scary; we never knew what or who might be lurking around the next pile of rocks. The uncertainty led to fear and anxiety that something bad could happen. We became wary of anything new and different.
Our “modern” brain isn’t much different. Research shows that as uncertainty increases, the brain shifts control to the limbic system from which anxiety and fear are generated. Travis Bradberry writing in Inc.:
“The limbic system responds to uncertainty with a knee-jerk fear reaction, and fear inhibits good decision-making. People who are good at dealing with uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface. In this way, they can contain it before it gets out of control.”¹
Today, we most likely don’t have to worry about stepping on a poisonous snake as we jog through Central Park, and a saber-toothed tiger isn’t going to drop on us from a tree. Nonetheless, uncertainty and its accompanying fear and anxiety haunt us.
According to Buddhist teacher Noah Rasheta:
“Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent. This means that all things are continually changing, and this implies that all things are going to be uncertain because they’re always changing. This impermanence is the permanence of an uncertain future. So, fear of an uncertain future affects our quality of life in the present moment.” ²
While this stress-inducing uncertainty is more pronounced right now, it is something that we live with all the time to greater and lesser degrees. How we learn to handle it now will pay off dividends in the days and years to come when we are faced with more of life’s uncertainties.
The Dangerous Illusion of Control
Illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we can control or at least influence outcomes that we have no real influence over. In uncertain times, the illusion that we can gain control is strengthened. When the control proves illusive, we become stressed.
According to Psychologist Sandra Sanger:
“A hallmark of mental health is the ability to be flexible — in behaviors and responses, and in relationship to feelings and thoughts. When you need to have control, you forgo flexibility and place a lower than necessary ceiling on your capacity for engaging in and enjoying life.”³
Our early ancestors attempted to control their environment with rituals to appease the gods, or nature, or the elements. Today, we use prayer, meditation, or other self-soothing methods to try and gain control. While these actions can tame feelings of fear and anxiety, they don’t give us the control we seek.
Our worries and concerns multiply exponentially.
Fear, Anxiety, and Cognitive Distortions
Moving through a time of uncertainty is similar to navigating unfamiliar territory. When we are in an unfamiliar place, we pay much closer attention to our surroundings than when we’re somewhere familiar. It’s that ancient part of the brain again, looking for danger. While it makes sense to stay alert, it can color our perceptions. We may see danger where there is none. When this happens, our responses may be inappropriate and exaggerated.
As we imagine ever more dire outcomes without factual data, we begin to feel like victims in a cruel universe.
“The phrase ‘cognitive distortion’ is a psychological term that describes a pattern of faulty thinking. Distorted cognitions are the ways that our brain misbehaves….Our brains hate the experience of uncertainty, and it’s both cognitively taxing and subjectively aversive.”⁴
Overgeneralization, catastrophizing, and fortune telling are predicting a negative outcome based on missing, incomplete, or isolated data. Our conclusions are neither analytical, nor reliable.
Yet we dwell on them, which increases our fear and anxiety, pushes our stress to the breaking point, and depletes our resources. This can become so bad, we feel as if we might explode. Live in this place too long, and we may need professional help to gain solid ground again.
“Negative thoughts are associated with negative feelings such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. Often we are not aware of our negative thoughts as they occur automatically, seem reasonable and believable. The worse we feel, the more likely we are to think negatively and believe these thoughts to be true, even though they are unreasonable and unrealistic. Negative thoughts are experienced by all of us at at some time but are more prevalent and extreme whenever we feel stressed, anxious, irritable or depressed.”⁵
Fear and anxiety are based on our thoughts. The fact is: We just don’t know what’s ahead. We can’t know.
Nonetheless, we wallow in our negative thinking and avoid taking actions that help mitigate the current situation or that improve the possibility of positive outcomes. We become entrenched in resistance.
Resistance Is Futile
Accept it or resist it, we are always moving through the in-between time to the other side. The sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we can start making smart decisions. A war with what is can’t be won until we identify what’s possible within what is. That only happens when we stop resisting.
According to Leon F Seltzer PhD:
“Typically, when you’re resisting what constitutes your reality — or rather, your subjective (and possibly faulty) sense of that reality — you’re shying away from it, complaining about it, resenting it, protesting against it, or doing battle with it. Without much self-realization, your energy, your focus, is concentrated on not moving beyond what opposes you, not coming to terms with it”⁶
By paying attention to what we are telling ourselves, we can counter worst-case imaginings, decrease our resistance, defeat our negative emotions, and increase our self-confidence.
- Replace, “I can’t handle this,” with, “I don’t like this, but I can cope with it by [fill in the blank].
- Replace, “I hate this,” with, “I would prefer something else, but I can make it work by [fill in the blank].”
- Replace, “This is just awful and will just get worse,” with, “I don’t like this, I wish I didn’t have to deal with it, but I can handle what’s in front of me. Right now, I’ll do [fill in the blank].
- Replace, “This should not have happened,” with, “It happened. No one can change that. I can figure out a way of dealing with it. I just need to [fill in the blank].
This process of challenging our negative thinking helps quiet the noise from our limbic system and lets our rational brain come to the forefront. When we think logically, we feel less fearful and anxious. We can look for and identify resources, options, and opportunities that we might otherwise never see.
We stop resisting and accept what is.
We suffer less, can gain control over what we can control, and give ourselves a map to the other side.
The map is the path of less resistance.
“A fish swims in a chaotic sea that it cannot possibly control — much as we all do. The fish, unlike us, is under no illusion that it controls the sea, or other fish in the area….it just swims….We are no better than that fish, yet our thinking creates the need for an illusion. Let go of that thinking.
“ Learn to be the fish.” Leo Babauta⁷
- “11 Ways Successful People Overcome Uncertainty” by Travis Bradberry, Inc.
- “The Fear of Uncertainty” by Noah Rasheta, Secular Buddhism
- “The Illusion of Control” by Sandra Sanger, PhD, PsychCentral
- How to Cope with Catastrophic Thinking During the Coronavirus Pandemic by Jamie Long, PhD
- Negative Thinking: CBT Tools. MoodCafe. NHS, Fife, Department of Psychology
- “You Only Get More of What You Resist — Why?” by Leon Seltzer PhD, Psychology Today
- “The Illusion of Control” by Leo Babauta, ZenHabits