Facing the future
We often face uncertainty when we think about the future but during periods of stability we don’t tend to dwell on these unknowns.
But health epidemics, illness, job loss or relationship breakdown quickly remind us that things can change with little warning. We can be left feeling stressed, anxious or frustrated. In these states, it can be hard to plan a way forward or feel compassion for ourselves or others.
At university, and in life, we face many choices and outcomes we have yet to discover. Becoming more comfortable with uncertainty helps us to meet these challenges more confidently.
Strategies often suggested
- Hold onto “stability rocks” or daily routines such as eating regularly and taking breaks
- Reach out to friends to help get perspective and ground us
- Accept it’s normal to feel stressed when difficult situations happen
- Write your thoughts down
- Talk to someone you trust
- Rather than ask “What if”, ask yourself “What will I do if...”
- Make a few contingency plans so you can cope with a range of outcomes
- Take one day or one moment at a time
- Practise tolerating the unknown and positive and negative outcomes
- Use things you have tried in the past that have helped
- Play to your strengths and do things you are good at - this helps us cope
- Take a break
- Be kind to yourself
- Step back and think about the big picture
- Practise gratitude even when things seem really challenging
Below you will find three common blocks (barriers and misconceptions) that can prevent us from tackling uncertainty about our futures constructively.
What’s the point in planning when I don’t know what will happen?
It’s normal to experience feelings of helplessness during times of heightened uncertainty. Planning things that we can control is a really powerful way of reducing feelings of helplessness. So what can we control? Often, it’s the time we wake up, what we consume and how we move our bodies. Not only can we control these things but sleep, diet and exercise are also super important to sustaining our wellbeing! All situations, good and bad, pass and when they do, it’s great to have some good wellbeing habits in place as we get plans back on track.
Studying makes me think about the future so I can’t just disconnect
Finding ways to balance thoughts of the future against things we can focus on in the present helps us to maintain perspective. Don’t be harsh with yourself for worrying. It’s a great sign that your studies are really important to you. Developing a few contingency plans around the most likely outcomes of a difficult situation can be a way to face the future with confidence. For example, if I am worried about how my exams will be held, I can think through what I will do if they are a) on campus b) virtual c) switched to alternative assessment. As information becomes available, we might drop or add contingency plans as we go.
Nothing has gone to plan and it’s making me feel terrible
Expectations, hopes and aspirations are important to our experience of starting uni and advancing through our studies. In normal circumstances, there can be a gap between very high expectations and our initial experience as we adapt to a new environment. This can leave us feeling homesick, anxious, frustrated or disappointed. Disaster or emergency situations can amplify these feelings. If we intentionally allow ourselves to loosen these expectations and revisit our aspirations or values, we may quickly find ways to engage with the situation in creative and innovative ways. Facing a “revised future” where we continue to seek opportunities to live like the people we want to be can help us turn towards uncertainty with courage and flexibility.
Below are three things you can do to boost success.
There’s more than one way to cook an egg
The cat skinning version is the more commonly used phrase but we get the meaning! Whilst we may have been very connected to the plan we had made, sometimes life throws us a curve ball and we need to change our course. This doesn’t mean we have to give up our goals but may instead mean pursuing that goal in a different way. Flexibility is the key here. Ask yourself, “How many ways are there to reach my goal?”
Reframe your thoughts
Facing the future can be nerve-wracking but it can also be an opportunity to try a slightly different path, develop a new skill or focus on things that are important to us now. Re-framing things you are doing in positive terms is a powerful way of down-regulating the sympathetic nervous system and accessing compassion in challenging times. Reflect on the positive impact you are having by adhering to restrictions or reaching out to people you care about.
Becoming familiar with uncertainty reduces the “freak out effect”
Developing skills to become comfortable with uncertainty is likely to mean we feel less anxious, even when things are challenging because we understand a few key things.
- Time is always passing so this too will pass; becoming acquainted with this feeling has great power and may help us become measured and considered decision makers.
- Without excessive anxiety we have a greater ‘band-width’ to savour other experiences that keep life interesting.
Check out the resources in the 'need more info' section for some additional practical tips.
Need more info?
- Coping with uncertainty - Mindtools
- 7 ways to deal with uncertainty
- The great unknown: 10 tips for dealing with the stress of uncertainty
- Dealing with uncertainty during coronavirus - Reachout
- Coping with the hard stuff
- How uncertainty affects us - Walid Afifi, TED talk
- The uncertainty paradox - Marvin Mathew, TED talk