Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services and Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead

How to cope with change and manage uncertainty


14 April 2020

When we experience uncertain times and are unable to predict and plan the future, many of us worry about the ‘what-ifs’ and our minds often dream up worst case scenarios. It’s what we’re biologically programmed to do.

However, there are ways to help us cope with this uncertainty and be more comfortable with change, whatever the cause may be.

AXA Health's Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services, Dr Mark Winwood and Mental Health Lead, Eugene Farrell both share with us how we can manage these feelings of uncertainty and what techniques we can use to help turn a negative situation into an opportunity to learn.

Uncertainty and what it does to our brain

“Our brain has one main goal: to keep us safe and ensure our survival. We’re focused on avoiding threats and the things that might be dangerous for us, and we go towards, and welcome, the things that reward us and make us feel better,” explains Mark.

What happens when we’re faced with change is that our brain sees this as a potential threat. Eugene says: “We like things to be consistent and we like certainty. When we’re able to predict certain events in our lives it makes us feel safe and comfortable, but uncertainty changes that.”

If we can’t tolerate any ambiguity or uncertainty in our lives it can really make us feel uncomfortable and anxious. We then start imagining what the worst case scenarios might be.

Levels of uncertainty

We are all dealing with uncertainty every single day, there’s nothing more certain in life than not being 100% certain.

That of course depends on the demands we make on ourselves and every individual is slightly different.

Eugene offers the example of driving. “We can’t be certain what everyone around us is going to do. Although we have the rules of the road, we accept that there is a level of uncertainty – and danger – every time we set off in our cars.”

“However, if we go to another country and drive, we don’t know what their rules are. There’s a different level of uncertainty to what we’ve become accustomed to and we may be more cautious or nervous; we’re just not as easy with that situation.”

We all have this intolerance for uncertainly to a certain degree, but depending on the intensity, it can become something that influences our mental wellbeing.

So, how do we help ourselves?

Step 1 – Recognise

When we’re fearful, we may experience a fight-or-flight reaction. This is a natural response to the feeling that something isn’t right, and that we’re under threat in some way. But recognising that this is happening is the first stage in being able to manage it that little bit better.

Otherwise there’s the risk of going into an anxiety loop – the more we worry, the more we realise how much we don’t know, which leads to us worrying even more.

Step 2 – STOP technique

“By adopting the STOP technique, we can remind ourselves that when we start getting these negative emotions from our bodies and minds, we’re actually struggling with what’s going around us,” says Mark.

STOP stands for:

S – Stand back and don’t act immediately

T –Take a breath. Use purposeful breaths, breathing in deeply for 5 seconds and out for 7. Doing this can start to calm down our stress response.

O – Observation. Give yourself the opportunity to ask some questions, such as “What am I uncertain about?” or “What’s the best or worst thing that can happen here?” It’s about taking back control and re-prioritising, and thinking about whether the answers to these types of questions are actually fact or opinion.

P -  Proceed. Provide alternatives to what you thought was happening and re-focus; proceed with a chosen, rather than your instinctive, reaction to the situation.

“The few seconds it takes for us to do this allows us to learn a really important skill: to respond to our experiences rather than react to them,” explains Mark. He also offers the following tip to help with mastering the technique:

“Download and print off some stop signs and stick them around your house or office. Take some time out when you can feel discomfort rising and allow yourself to re-engage with your mind to think the situation through.”

Step 3 – Ambiguity

This is our ability to not think in a right or wrong way, but somewhere in the middle: the ‘grey area’, rather than taking a more black and white view.

We sometimes set our bar too high and recognising this can help us become more tolerant of ambiguity. We can be more patient with ourselves and apply the STOP technique; we don’t need to have all the answers, all of the time.

“Unhook yourself from situations, or even technology, that increase your sense of uncertainty and instead focus on the things that you can be sure of. Certainty is always present in times of uncertainty; we just need to be able to identify it,” says Eugene.

Step 4 – Manage your thinking

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, there are various techniques we can use to engage with more helpful thoughts and behaviours, to better manage feelings of discomfort.

Looking for the evidence – when we’re struggling with anxious thoughts about uncertain situations we sometimes only imagine the worse-case scenario, so it can be helpful to ask ourselves where is the evidence that this will happen? Am I just guessing or trying to make predictions? What is the likelihood of this occurring? Can I have more balanced view of this? These questions can help us reframe the situation and reduce our anxious feelings.

Learning to breathe and relax – this style of mindful approach allows us to relieve our brains and be in the present moment. This can calm our mind and body. It helps us to bring back a logical mind to take us forward and stop that reactionary part of our brain taking over. Take a look at our minfulness breathing tips article to get you started.

Sharing your concerns and talking with others – we have to remember that we’re all learning. No one has all the answers. If we’re demanding all the answers then we’re not allowing ourselves the opportunity to grow from the experiences that difficult times bring.

Applying a growth mindset – rather than seeing an uncertain time as a threat, if we’re more open minded we see opportunities to learn and grow. Being curious allows us to see the world in a way that’s possible and not threatening and help shift our discomfort into a chance to learn.

Through any time of uncertainty, talk, breathe and be kind to yourself.

Further resources

How to worry less - AXA Health

Harness the power of positive thinking - AXA Health

The benefits of mindfulness - AXA Health

Mindful breathing tips - AXA Health

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