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Getting Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Let's start with a fundamental truth about the human brain: It's a prediction machine powered by the fuel of habit and routine. Every day, throughout our waking hours, our brain continuously anticipates what will happen next based on our previous related experiences. Our brain assumes a certain level of consistency and sequences and has firm expectations of how things in our day will proceed. Herein lies the challenge: the daily predictability the brain craves is often met with deviations from the expected plan and can quickly venture into unforeseen developments. For the sake of simplicity, let's call these unexpected twists and turns 'real life.'  

 

As anyone who has been on the planet for a few years can tell you, real life tends to ignore our plans and throw a lot of curveballs at us. These sudden changes can quickly grind the gears of our subconscious as it attempts to process the new reality and sensory data. In other words, when reality does not match our expectations, it makes our brain uncomfortable, and our conscious notification often comes in the form of anxiety.

 

We don't need to look further than 'stress dreams' for an easy visual example. Often, these dreams are triggered by current events in our lives that we are feeling uncertain about or unprepared for. For instance, we have an upcoming meeting at work or an assignment at school, and in our dreams, we can't find the material we need to deliver or present. Or, in our waking hours, we feel overwhelmed by the number of daily responsibilities we are trying to juggle. In our dreams, we find ourselves being chased by someone (or something!) and seem only able to run in slow motion. Another example of feeling time pressured during the day can be reflected in a dream where we need to be somewhere important and can't find our keys or our car. 


While dream interpretation is far from an exact science, there is enough data collected over the years of studies to make a clear case that when we are feeling overcome by uncertainty during the day, our brain is busy at night feverishly working to iron out the wrinkles of our daytime worries.

 

As a large-scale illustration of how we collectively responded to profound and prolonged uncertainty, the COVID-19 pandemic is attributed to be a leading cause of the unprecedented increase in mental health issues that Americans of all ages currently struggle with.


One significant factor gaining attention in recent studies is 'intolerance of uncertainty'. Essentially, assessments are administered to evaluate someone's tendency to view uncertainty as a threat versus a challenge to be overcome. For people with increased tendencies to view uncertainty as a threat, the data clearly shows they are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. To read some more about the study and results, check out this link: The effect of intolerance of uncertainty on anxiety and depression, and their symptom networks, during the COVID-19 pandemic | BMC Psychiatry | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

 

As you may have suspected, the other side of the coin is that a higher tolerance for uncertainty provides a heightened resiliency to the barrage of unexpected developments that we encounter daily.

 

The main headline here is that if you currently suspect yourself to be a high scorer on an 'intolerance of uncertainty' assessment, the studies are also clear that we can become much more tolerant and accepting of change and get to the point where we embrace it. The upside to our brain in adapting to change is multifold. Primarily, we are building the muscle to rapidly assess and process dynamic information, more quickly identify solutions to problems, and hone our skills in creative thinking. When we learn to keep cool in the chaos, we are not only training ourselves to get comfortable being uncomfortable but that discomfort at stress morphs into a different interpretation of the unexpected and feels a lot more like a new opportunity for growth through challenging circumstances.

Some starting steps on the road to becoming more comfortable in dealing with uncertainty and change:

 

  •  Self-Awareness- I've written previous columns about emotional intelligence, and the components of self-awareness and self-management directly apply to becoming more tolerant of change and uncertainty. When we practice self-awareness, we recognize our feelings and emotions without being hijacked by them. When we start to feel our stress level increasing because of unexpected problems, we will automatically begin to experience the physical effects (the human body is simply running its regular program). In that moment, we can attempt to stop the feelings from overwhelming us by rationally talking ourselves through them. By understanding the mechanics of the brain and its natural tendency to sound the alarm when something unanticipated occurs, we can develop the capacity to hit the snooze button on it by focusing on an 'accept and adapt' mindset to figure out the best solution to the new circumstances. One approach to focusing your attention on a stressful moment is using the acronym 'PAUSE.' Perceive, Assess, Understand, Strategize and Evaluate. These steps can be taken quickly and immediately, giving a rational framework to build around our situation to block panic from taking hold. A final suggestion to help alleviate the anxious feelings of the unknown and unforeseen problems is to mentally fast-forward to 'what's the worst-case scenario' and imagine what you would do. In doing that, the other less harmful scenarios running through our heads won't seem as catastrophic.

 

  • Self-Management- Deep breathing is our' factory reset' button and is a highly effective technique to stop the physical feelings of stress in its tracks. When we notice these feelings, we can counter them with deep breathing, which triggers the 'rest and digest' system and stimulates relaxation by taking in more oxygen and lowering your heart rate. You manually send the 'all good 'signal to your body and take it off high alert. Try it now if you like: 3-second inhale through the nose, 3-second exhale through the mouth, repeat for 30-30 seconds. 

 

To tie it all together, when we figure out that the goal in life is not to have everything figured out, we can start to build our superpowers of adaptability in dealing with anything life throws at us.

 

Going through your day with the feeling of positivity isn't the belief that there won't be any problems; it's the knowledge that you are fully capable of dealing with whatever the problems are.




 

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