Amidst the pandemic, uncertainty has become omnipresent—a thread woven through all parts of our lives with little to no sign of relief. Over 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., a vaccine might be a year or more away, and no one is quite sure how to proceed with reopening schools and businesses. Life—as we used to know it—is very unknown.
Generations of social scientists have observed that human beings aren’t fond of uncertainty. We like a stable set of patterns and routines, of knowing what comes next. Thoughts and feelings of uncertainty can be torturous—will I get fired from my job? Why didn’t my friend text me back? Will the weather ruin my plans? While for some animals unpredictability leads to heightened vigilance, humans instead feel distress and our nervous system goes into overdrive.
The pandemic has precipitated drastic change and left most of us feeling vulnerable and uncertain about the future. Over the past several months we’ve seen dramatic increases in mental health problems, aggression, and violence (yes, employees have been killed for telling customers to wear a facemask in a store).
So, how are people supposed to deal with all of this uncertainty, perhaps the most we will ever feel in our lifetime? The field of psychology has already yielded important wisdom: that we should work to increase our tolerance for ambiguity.
The concept of tolerance of ambiguity, originally developed by Dr. Else Frenkel-Brunswik in 1948, has been widely studied and is defined as the degree to which a person is uncomfortable with unpredictability, uncertainty, and conflicting demands. A person with a high tolerance functions well in an uncertain environment—a new job, say—while a person with a lower tolerance might struggle to even apply for a new job, as they are fearful of what the future holds.
Social scientists have determined that there are ways we can build up our tolerance for ambiguity muscles.
First, it begins with some self-observation and monitoring—attending to the quality of one’s thoughts and feelings. Research highlights that we should practice self-calming (there are lots of great ways to relax!), visualize goodness, and engage in mindfulness practices. This also includes activities like journaling–writing down thoughts and feelings regardless of how raw or unpleasant they may be—and engaging in exercise to help focus on how the body feels. As the pandemic progresses and tensions rise, people will need tools like these to help decrease feelings of anxiety.
Second is managing attitudes and thoughts. This one is much more tough to cultivate. It includes things like nurturing curiosity, engaging in perspective-taking, and strategically gathering information to make decisions. Amidst the pandemic, it is even more imperative that we actively work to stay curious—keeping up with hobbies, shows, cooking, whatever you like—look at the world from different perspectives (check out how art can improve our capacity for tolerating uncertainty) and be intentional about whether information is helping to fuel our feelings of uncertainty or moving us toward healthy control.
Lastly is the concept of “behavior activation.” This strategy is fundamental for coping with stress, depression, or PTSD, and is an attempt to help people increase their engagement with positive activities. To increase tolerance for ambiguity, it is crucial to try new things, meet new people, communicate and connect, and exercise courage. With safety measures in place this is, of course, more difficult than normal, but not impossible. It is possible to try a new sport or take-out restaurant, join a virtual book club, and communicate with friends over FaceTime. These may all take small, daily acts of courage, especially when we feel under threat and are seeking clarity as to what the future brings, but they can also help better protect us from the most painful parts of living in an uncertain world
It is important to note that increasing our tolerance for ambiguity cannot happen overnight and may even be harder amidst a time of worldwide chaos. However, plenty of psychological research has equipped us with the tools to manage the long and winding road ahead. Despite the enormous uncertainty we all feel, there are proven ways we can get better at dealing with it.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.