COVID-19 has certainly put us all in touch with what it’s like to live with uncertainty. It has given us the opportunity to reflect on what uncertainty means to us, how we typically respond to it, and to unearth lessons from the past to support us during such challenging times.

What is uncertainty? To me uncertainty arises when change comes to us “out of the blue” or is imposed on us by someone or something that is outside of our control.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines uncertainty as: “a situation in which something is not known, or something that is not known for certain” and “the feeling of not being sure what will happen in the future” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org).

Uncertainty means different things to different people. I invite you to take a few minutes to think about your responses to the following questions. You may wish to journal about them.

How do you define uncertainty?

When you think about uncertainty what words or feelings come up for you?

I invite you to rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 in relation to how you typically respond to uncertainty; 1 being “scares me to death” and 10 being “I thrive on it.”

What have you learned from past experiences with uncertainty that you can apply to your experience during these challenging times? What life experiences have prepared you to be less anxious and less stressed during this pandemic?

What I’ve noticed about myself, friends, colleagues and clients is that those of us who have had previous experiences with uncertainty and processed them positively, have coped better with the current situation than those who have not.

Here are a few examples:

Living and working in conflict zones and environments with restricted movement:

I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. In Afghanistan I was driven to work every day in a bullet proof vehicle by an armed Afghan driver. We were followed by a “soft skin” vehicle with 3 Afghans holding AK- 47s. The first week I was rather “taken aback” by all of the military presence, but soon I relaxed and realized that “came with the territory”. Each day I didn’t know whether our vehicle would be pulled over by the police and be questioned about our papers and then taken to a nearby police station, or not. I lived in a state of constant uncertainty.

One day I was sitting in the rose garden of the Ministry of Public Health where I was working and having lunch with one of my female team members. All of sudden there was a huge explosion. A number of suicide bombers had attacked the military hospital across the road from the Ministry and killed numerous Afghan medical students, patients and their families. Immediately I received a text from my Head of Security advising me to stay where I was and that a vehicle would come for me soon/when it was safe to do so.

I lived in a small compound with 2 large houses and a small building that housed our guards and drivers. The compound was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. There were 3 men with AK-47s guarding the inside our walls at all times. I had to sign a waiver and commit to not walking in the street or outside of the compound due the security situation. Sometimes after work I would walk in circles inside the small compound as I so craved exercise and being in nature. Thankfully, we did have a small rose garden on the property.

How did I deal with the uncertainty of living and working in a conflict zone? Here are some strategies I found helpful:

  • Did yoga every morning before heading out to work (sometimes with a colleague and sometimes on my own)
  • Skyped with my Sweetie almost every morning; connected with someone I cared about who also cared about me
  • Grounded myself every morning before heading to work
  • Worked out in the on-site gym on a regular basis
  • Often listened to music
  • Surrounded myself with beauty; e.g. created a bedroom that had some beautiful local art including several small carpets and a water-color painting I purchased locally
  • Started a gratitude journal and wrote down at least 3 things I was grateful for at the end of every day; Also journaled regularly about my feelings and experiences
  • When I noticed some anxiety coming up, I took three deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth (releasing oxytocin, the hormone that relaxes your body and helps you feel at peace)
  • Almost every Thursday night, I connected with my colleagues; other technical advisors and consultants who were working on various projects with the Afghan government. We considered this our weekend as Friday was prayer day and the only day we had off every week. We sometimes had a bonfire, roasted marshmallows; often we sang to the guitar music played by one of my colleagues. Sometimes we danced. We laughed and shared experiences together. Sometimes we drank a bit too much!

What I learned from these experiences was that I could live with uncertainty. I found that rarely was I anxious. I learned that I could live in a contained environment and still be happy, focused and do good work. I also learned some coping strategies that I can now apply to future times of uncertainty.

Over to you. What past experiences with uncertainty can support you during this challenging time? It may be that you were laid off from a job you loved “out of the blue”. It could be that a partner one day told you they no longer loved you and had found someone else.

If you have chosen to move and lived in many places or changed your work or career a number of times, this may also have made you more flexible and able to cope with uncertainty and change. Whereas, if you’ve worked for the same company for 30 years or lived in the same town you were born in, you may have more challenges dealing with uncertainty.

What I know to be true is that it is not enough to have had challenging and uncertain life and work experiences. We need to have processed them in a positive way. A helpful framework and tool to do this is my 5-step “Art of Change” Framework. Using this tool, you identify a change or uncertain situation you want to work on and where you are on your “transition journey”. You then do the work associated with the phase of the transition journey you are in; such as letting go of negative emotions, beliefs or behaviors that are no longer serving you, envisioning how you would like your life or work to look and feel like and then taking action to make it happen. This framework is underpinned by the belief that “embracing change (and uncertainty) is a creative process that opens us up to new possibilities”. To learn more, you may access “The Art of Change Framework” at: https://pamela-thompson.com/.

I believe that times of intense change and uncertainty provide us with the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, to dream big dreams and create new possibilities.

What previous experiences with uncertainty have helped you cope during this time? What tools or strategies have you found helpful to deal with uncertainty? I invite your comments below.

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