How uncertainty has impacted our lives during the pandemic.
It has been almost two years since COVID-19 was thrust into the forefront of everyone’s mind. Many of us are still waiting for things to go back to normal, or at least for things to feel a little more right. Despite adjusting somewhat to this “new normal,” there is a lot of uncertainty about what the world is going to be like going forward.
Uncertainty is the psychological state of not knowing. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is wide-ranging. The pandemic took our day-to-day worries about what might happen in the future and added a whole new layer of uncertainty about health, jobs, and relationships. We have adjusted and readjusted to new work environments, we have dealt with shortages of our everyday products like toilet paper, and we continue to deal with decisions about when to be around our loved ones again. Recent research has shed some insight into how the toll of COVID-19 uncertainty has impacted us. But first, it’s important to understand what uncertainty is.
Part of being human is learning from past experiences and using those lessons to predict the outcomes of similar events in the future. People like to be able to anticipate and prepare for threatening situations and to feel like they have some control over those situations. Uncertainty is not necessarily negative. For example, some people prefer uncertainty over knowing more about a health diagnosis that might be upsetting. In general though, people do not enjoy uncertainty because uncertainty gets in the way of us doing what we love doing: predicting what will happen in the future. We are cognitive misers. We take pleasure in knowing that one plus one will always equal two, or that vehicles will stop at a stop sign. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns so that we do not have to put as much energy into deciphering all the things that happen to us throughout the day.
The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted everyone’s ability to predict what might happen next, but we do not experience uncertainty the same way. Several factors play into how a person is going to react to any situation, but one, in particular, is tolerance of uncertainty. Uncertainty intolerance is a person’s “negative emotions, cognitions, and [coping] behaviors when experiencing uncertainty.” Some people are better at dealing with uncertainty than others. People who are less tolerant of uncertainty tend to experience more anxiety and depression compared to people who are more tolerant of uncertainty. People with a high tolerance of uncertainty are less likely to exert energy ruminating about what they do not know.
Certain demographic groups appear to be less tolerant of COVID-19 related uncertainty as well as the negative consequences of that uncertainty. In particular, young adults (18-30 years old), women, caregivers, and ethnic/racial minorities have reported more distress than other demographic groups. Aside from demographics, researchers have found that people who are more afraid of the virus, in general, are also less tolerant of not knowing what to expect next.
When we cannot anticipate what will happen next, everybody, regardless of their tolerance of uncertainty, experiences symptoms of depression and anxiety. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that four out of ten adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health and substance use during the pandemic. Compared to 2019, depression and anxiety were up by about 17%, and one in ten adults reported COVID-19 as a reason for starting or increasing their substance use.
The problem with COVID-19 is that people today have not lived through a global pandemic; they cannot make a comparison to any past experiences with something like this. People are experiencing uncertainty related to spreading the virus, work and finances, disrupted support systems, and daily routines. The virus itself has been less of a concern for people compared to the social and financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic. The changes that have occurred and continue to occur have challenged people’s identities that might be tied up in their jobs or leisure activities. For example, actress Zendaya discussed how the absence of work left her questioning who she was outside of her job. These changes also challenge our close relationships as we try to navigate a balance between social interaction and effective communication about the uncertainty related to COVID-19.
In general, research on uncertainty during the pandemic found that staying connected is one way to reduce uncertainty. And when I say “stay connected,” I am not talking about scrolling through your Instagram feed. I am talking about having conversations with other people whether it is friends, family, or acquaintances. People who stayed connected with a larger social network were more likely to feel less fatigued, less stressed, and less worried compared to those with a smaller social network. In a different study, people who reported receiving more social support from family, friends, and significant others during the pandemic reported less anxiety and depression. People got in touch creatively. They wrote letters, joined Netflix parties, Zoomed with family and friends to stay connected without the fear of spreading the virus.Whether you are tolerant of uncertainty or not, the uncertainty stemming from the pandemic continues to change our day-to-day lives, and that uncertainty is exhausting. Even after the pandemic subsides, nothing is certain but uncertainty. The silver lining is that hopefully “after” the pandemic, uncertainty levels can go back to normal.