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Dr. Judith Beck

By Judith S. Beck, PhD
President, Beck Institute

One of the most difficult parts about Covid-19 is uncertainty: about the timeline of the virus, about the impact on the economy, and about the effect it could have on our and our loved ones’ well-being. In my more than forty years of practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), I have learned that uncertainty unlocks a desire for control in many individuals. While we should modify our behaviors to take control of what we can, it is equally important to modify our thoughts around what we cannot control. The following techniques and definitions can be used to help navigate uncertainty.  

Imagining the Most Likely Scenario 

When people are anxious, they are likely to imagine a worst-case scenario. It’s important to remind yourself that the worst-case scenario is only one of many possible outcomes. It can be helpful to think about the best-case scenario and the most realistic outcome—which often falls somewhere between the best case and the worst case. 

Imagine yourself a year from today and create a visual image of the most likely scenario. Although my fortune-telling abilities are no greater that anyone else’s, common sense tells me that on the first day of spring 2021, we most likely will be back at work, and our kids will be back at school. In short, we’ll return to normal. It may be a new normal, with some precautions we’re taking today, but it will feel normal.  

Why We Crave Certainty 

The way that you view a situation affects how you feel. That is the basic premise of CBT. If you view the coronavirus as a devastating and imminent threat to you or to your family or community—over which you have no control--you’ll feel quite anxious. If you perceive that you are responsibly following CDC guidelines and are likely to survive, even if you do get the virus, you’ll feel better. 

If we knew for sure when the virus would die out, we’d feel better. If we knew for sure that when it died out, we’d be okay, with a job and a roof over our heads and food to eat, we’d feel better. Not knowing produces uncertainty. When we experience uncertainty, we often try to reduce our discomfort by trying to take control. But there’s not much more that we can do other than sheltering in place (as much as we can), limiting exposure to other people, and sanitizing ourselves and our environment. But most of us can’t reduce our risk to zero. We still need to go out for groceries and supplies. Some still need to go to work.  It’s important to accept that we can’t always take 100% control. Most of us, though, will be safe or safe enough without being completely in control. 

The Problem with Demanding Certainty—and How to Feel Better 

If you demand certainty, though, an absolute guarantee that you or your family won’t contract the virus, you’re likely to be highly anxious, because absolute certainty isn’t possible. On the other hand, you can reduce your anxiety by accepting the fact that taking the reasonable precautions the CDC advises may be the most you can do.  

When you’re feeling out of control of some aspects of life, you’re likely to feel better if you take control of other parts of your life, especially your time and your habits. Get up at a regular time each day. Get dressed. Make a list of tasks you need to get done, and also activities that can give you a sense of pleasure. If you’re out of work, you could try learning a new skill. Social interaction via phone or video chats is very important. Find a way to reach out to those less fortunate than you, especially people who live alone. Good self-care is also crucial. Walking outside, while maintaining proper social distance, generally helps people feel better. Eat according to a schedule, with planned, healthy meals and snacks. Throughout the day, give yourself credit for the things that you have accomplished.  

Here are some additional strategies for when things feel out of control: 

  • If you find yourself worrying too much, download a mindfulness app so you can learn to put worry in the background and engage in more productive activities.  
  • If you find you’re constantly refreshing your screen, try limiting your exposure to news about the virus to once a day. It may feel as if constant checking means you’re taking control but it probably actually means you’re just feeding your anxiety.
  • Think about your strengths and your coping skills. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your life? What did you do to overcome them? What did you learn that you could put into action today?
  • And finally, focus on what you can control: the way you view your experiences and how you respond. I predict you’ll feel much better.