In our pre-pandemic lives, we thought we could outsmart uncertainty and unpredictability. Now, in an anxious holding pattern, we have no roadmap. To look ahead, we must look within. Here’s how.
Lu Hanessian, MSc
Chance favors the prepared mind. — Louis Pasteur
There’s a reason humans hate unpredictability. We’re wired for threat.
And not just any, but all whiffs of threat. Real or imagined. Threat that jeopardizes our health, relationships, money, dreams, stability. Risks our reputation or livelihoods. Thwarts our autonomy. Our plans. Our dignity. (We often conflate all of these.)
In a blink, we become hypervigilant. What’s going to happen? Our anticipatory dread about what might occur— in an hour or years from now — has ignited a private firestorm of worry. We stare headlong into the fog. Zero visibility. Where are we going?
We’re not crazy. We’re biased.
Our brain has a negativity bias. Evolutionarily, we’re built like this so we didn’t become lunch. It’s a protective factor. Here’s a neat paradox. We may be primed for negativity, but we humans like novelty. Awe and wonder are good for our health. New experiences grow the brain and expand our thinking.
That is… when we’re not bathed in stress hormones. When the world is upright. When we have some semblance of imaginary ducks in an invisible row.
Here we are. Upended. Suspended. Work is home. Out is in. Together is apart.
There are no ducks. No rows.
But, there is one constant we are all facing, maybe for the first time ever with this kind of widespread synchrony. That constant is uncertainty.
The sleight-of-mind trick, of course, is that, in our pre-pandemic lives, we had convinced ourselves that we could outsmart uncertainty and unpredictability. We had our spreadsheets and strategies. Projected our multi-year vision. We got ahead of the curve.
Until we had to flatten it.
Not that we aren’t clever, strategic and adept at adapting. But, waking, living, working, relating, and sleeping in a shroud of uncertainty— this kind of hot-pit-in-gut uncertainty — is proving to be an adaptive challenge that none of us really knows how to accept. Let alone, lead.
As a stress resilience educator, researcher, and facilitator, the question I hear a lot from people these days is… “When?”
When will we shift gears? When we be able to be out with people? When will we resume the rhythms of society? When will we feel safe? When will we trust? When will we know what to do with our businesses, organizations, and schools? When will we be able to exhale?
The short answer? Now.
We can plan for the possibility of what’s ahead by harnessing the power of presence. Here are 4 science-based practices that can help you look within to look ahead:
1. Cope proactively, not reactively.
On a good day, we can handle stressful events. We can even forecast stress. Anticipate and strategically plan how we’d cope with each kind of stress. Scientists call this kind of situation-specific skill anticipatory coping.
Usually, we assess and adapt. We’re able to distinguish between the things that we can prevent and those events that we can’t avoid. And we adjust accordingly. That’s when we have ample internal resources. Tolerance for some discomfort. Patience. Long-view vision. Inspiration.
Our resources can get depleted. Especially if we perceive future stressors as not just uncontrollable, but unavoidable.
Pasteur said ‘chance favors the prepared mind’. Instead of forecasting a threat, we can imagine forecasting a chance. Chance as happenstance. And as opportunity. We can prepare ourselves now for future stress with a practice of what researchers call “proactive coping”. This helps us “mute the impact” of those stressors, even if we can’t prevent them from arising.
This is a moment to prepare our mind and body. To balance our thinking and our responding. To look within while we look ahead.
By practicing mindfulness, we reduce our reactivity to stress. This allows us to expand our ability to proactively cope with imagined and real stressors. Now. How?
2. Toggle perspectives.
In the face of unpredictable, uncontrollable situations, our fear tends to fill in the blanks. We can quickly lose perspective. Researcher Barbara Frederickson of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found positive emotions can “open our mind”.
Negative emotions narrow our thinking, and harm the functioning of the heart by causing inflammation.
It’s a good thing we can often ‘undo’ the negative effects of harboring fear, anger and anxiety through becoming more mindful of positive emotions. (More on the power of generating positive self-emotion in #4).
Positive psychology researchers who study resilience suggest frameworks for exploring our thinking patterns.
Try this: Considering our current upside-down world, what is the “worst case” scenario you can conjure? Take it as far as your imagination will go.
OK, now, imagine the “best case” scenario. Blow it up into the wildest wonderful thing you can conceive. Now, think of the “most likely” scenario.
In my work, I add another layer to this exercise. The somatic piece. Because the body responses to our thoughts, we can track our body’s reaction to our thoughts as we imagine each scenario. Recent research has found a neural basis for how emotion activates physiology.
So, what did you feel in your body when you imagined the worst case scenario? How about the best? And the most likely? Once you imagined the most likely scenario, did the worst case seem kind of distant, even highly imporbably or absurd? Toggling these states can widen your lens and expand your perspective in the present moment.
3. Practice presence.
It may sound counterintuitive to focus on the moment when fears of un unknown future are gripping you. It’s not about avoidance. It’s about attention. The science is compelling.
When you practice focusing your attention, you strengthen the circuits in your brain that promote reflective thinking, self-regulation, fear modulation, and insight. There are several evidence-based ways of practicing attention. Here are a couple:
Focus on breathing. Simple breathing practices manifest profound changes in your state. It stabilizes you. How you breathe affects how you feel.
Tune in to your senses. This can be as simple as stretching your arms over your head in the morning. Smelling morning coffee. Savoring a mindful meal. A walk in nature, noticing the sights, smells, and sounds around you. Coming to your senses and finding your rhythm.
When you tune in to senses and breath, you focus your attention — and this is the kicker — where you choose to focus it. This strengthens your capacity for stress resilience.
What we practice grows. Practicing presence promotes clear, reflective thinking that allows you to take in a more panoramic view.
4. Widen your lens.
A curious thing happens when we are stressed out and afraid. Our peripheral vision gets narrower. We see less when we’re less calm, less hopeful, less curious. Widening our vision, literally and figuratively, requires something that’s hard to curate when we’re scared: curiosity.
Through curiosity and self-reflection, we can generate positive emotion. Frederickson has discovered that positivity enhance creativity by broadening our mind, our way of thinking, and, consequently, the scope of our possible actions. As positive emotions like joy, gratitude, serenity, hope and awe open us up further, that mental-emotional-physical state of openness triggers more positivity — in an “upward spiral”.
Frederickson’s “broaden and build” theory underscores the power of how positive emotions we feel in the moment — what she calls “micronutrients” for the heart and body — broaden our ideas about what we can and will do with our thoughts. We expand our “thought-action repertoire”, as she puts it. We widen our lens. And build on it.
So, the next time we start catastrophizing about what we can’t control, we don’t activate an anxious downward spiral and reach for our quickest distraction, numbing device or worse. We actually feel the broader range of options for how we want to feel, see, and act. Managing our fears of future… in the moment.
Bonus: all of these practices of broadening and building, reflecting, toggling, minding the moment… they integrate the brain.
“Positivity doesn’t just reflect success and health. It produces success and health.” — Barbara Frederickson
We can meet the unknown with a sense of curiosity instead of terror. An acceptance of current reality, instead of resistance. An inner knowing that we can proactively cope without reactive fear immobilizing or derailing us.
We can do all of this now. It’s how we cultivate personal agency. Exhale now. Practice presence to feel safe now. Find your rhythms now. Reach out and connect. As you explore, broaden, deepen your practice, you begin to innovate, discover, and prepare for a whole spectrum of possibility — and opportunity — from right where you are.