Keep calm in times of uncertainty

When will the COVID-19 pandemic end? What havoc will the economic crisis wreak? Can we save the planet? Uncertainty makes us anxious. However, there are ways to overcome our fears and regain serenity.


Faced with the unknown and unpredictable, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we imagine the worst. It is a cognitive bias that leads us to overestimate the impact of tragic events.

Uncertainty acts as a magnifying glass directed at our mental contents that cause us anxiety and negatively influence our mood.

Acceptance and commitment therapy offers numerous tools to alleviate the negative thoughts that cause us anxiety. Among these, cognitive defusion.

A pandemic that affects the health of millions of people, an economic crisis that destabilizes the labor market, an increasingly exploited planet … Uncertainty has been installed as a guest of honor at this beginning of the 21st century. Undoubtedly, we had ignored their presence under the sweet purr of a consumer society that promised to immediately satisfy all our desires and, logically, we were distressed by this unforeseen and this new dose of ignorance.

How do we react to uncertainty? Why do we feel so puzzled sometimes? Are there means to better manage this situation? As we will see below, uncertainty is most destabilizing when we assume that the uncontrollable and the unknown are fraught with potential evils. We often fear the unknown because we do not know what it will bring us and because in the face of that blind spot we tend to assume that disasters are coming.

This bias that leads us to overestimate the impact of tragic events on life has been studied in depth by psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University. His work won him the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, along with Amos Tversky, from the universities of Jerusalem and Stanford. In his book Think Fast, Think Slow , Kahneman highlights the human inclination to overestimate the impact of life’s tragic events; not because of the possibility that they affect us, but because of the damages that they could cause. However, we are likely to adapt to them much better than we anticipate.

A big trap: the focal illusion

To get an idea of ​​the gap between our expectations and reality, let us be guided through harrowing scenarios by those who have actually been through them. Sometimes, from the mouths of friends or even our own, we hear phrases like: “If my son died, I would not bear it”, “If my husband left me, I would be devastated and could never get over it”, “If I lost mobility of the legs after an accident, I would rather die ”, etcetera. However, these hypothetical future concerns respond to what researchers call “the focal illusion”: we place too much importance on what we fear and instead ignore other factors that would have a real impact on our well-being in the case. of them happening.

In a longitudinal study published in 2003, married people who had to cope with the death of their spouse were followed for several years. The interest of this type of study lies in being able to compare the well-being and satisfaction of the same people before, during and after the trance. In this way, the method avoids the methodological bias that occurs when different people are compared at different stages of the separation process. It was clearly demonstrated that widowhood is a painful event and that well-being plummets. But it was also shown that the perception of well-being improves progressively over time: five years later, the life satisfaction of the participants had recovered to almost its initial level, and it is possible to suppose that the happiness in the day to day did not present any difference any. The person then begins a new life.

A magnifying glass that amplifies the evils

The loss of a spouse is burdensome, but as painful as it may be, it can at least lead to new encounters that help to get out of loneliness and rebuild life. But what about irreversible tragedies with permanent results? What to do when an accident causes a lifelong disability? If participants without disabilities and without any contact with paraplegic people are asked to estimate the percentage of sad feelings that the latter experience on a daily basis, their assessment is close to 70 percent.In other words, for them, a person with paraplegia mainly experiences negative emotions. They tend to think that disability undermines everyday life and, of course, they consider that, if the same happened to them, it would greatly overshadow their own existence.

It is interesting to analyze the reasons that contribute to this perception bias. The analyzes reveal that the respondents only imagine the difficulties that paraplegic people face on a daily basis, and ignore the sweeter aspects of existence that are also present: spending time with family, going to the movies, seeing friends or eat in a restaurant, among many others. Pleasant activities are just as enjoyable for people with paraplegia, but our brain gives more importance to what we lose (being able to use our legs) than to everything else. This phenomenon, known as “loss aversion”, was one of the pillars of Kahneman and Tversky’s Nobel Prize [ see “Preference Psychology”, by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; Research and Science, March 1982].

Influenced by the focal illusion, we focus our attention on certain parameters to the detriment of other more pleasant ones.

But when such a question is posed to those affected by disability, they respond that, in general, they do not experience more bitter feelings or a worse mood than those of healthy people, once they accept their new condition. This led Kahneman to state: ‘Various detailed observations show that paraplegics are in a good mood more than half the time from the beginning of the second month after the accident, although their mood is obviously gloomier when they think about it. your situation”. This echoes a famous study carried out by the social psychologist Philip Brickman (1943-1982), in which he compared the degree of well-being of people with paraplegia with that of lottery winners. According to their results, the former took almost as much pleasure in their daily lives as the control group and more than the lottery winners! While it is true that people with paralysis lead a more complicated existence in some practical ways, their life is just as satisfying as for others. Especially when there is a phenomenon of post-traumatic growth (positive psychological change as a result of adversity to achieve higher vital functioning).

When we do not know what the future will bring, and we see other people sick with a virus, affected by an attack or who have lost their jobs, the uncertainty about what awaits us often makes us imagine the worst. This is the source of our anxiety. Influenced by the focal illusion, we focus our attention on certain parameters to the detriment of other more pleasant ones. And hence Kahneman’s “antidote phrase”: “Nothing in life is as important as what you think and when you think about it.” This helps us to remember that in our inner theater, the projector of attention pays an inordinate importance to what it illuminates to the detriment of what it leaves in the shadow. And that it is in our hands to restore that balance by modifying the way of thinking. Let’s not forget that formidable coping mechanisms work in the brain to build our resilience and help us overcome and recover from adversity. In all certainty, no experience we have will affect our happiness as much as we fear.

Avoid the rebound effect

Uncertainty acts as a magnifying glass directed at our mental contents that cause anxiety and negatively affect our mood. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the fathers of positive psychology, puts it this way: ‘The mood of chronically depressed or anorexic people is indistinguishable from that of healthy people while they are accompanied and busy doing something that requires concentration. But as soon as they are alone and with nothing to do, their mind is invaded again by depressing thoughts and entropy settles in their consciousness. The sabotage of our care networks by our concerns would be, therefore, the main responsible for the difficulty we have to face uncertainty with serenity.

Once the evil is known, what could be the remedy? Each of us has suffered the painful experience of having inopportune thoughts that invade our consciousness despite our attempts to ignore them. We all know the rebound effect very well, which makes us think more about what we are trying to get out of our minds, like the white bear in which the social psychologist Daniel Wegner (1948-2013) asked the participants of his experiments that they will not think. Unfortunately, we are familiar with those endless mental ping-pong games in which each argument generates a counterargument that immediately sweeps away the first. No, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lose my job. Well, if you look at the unemployment rates … Yes, but I am qualified and I can demonstrate a solid professional experience. Yes,

Respondents only imagine the difficulties that people with paraplegia face on a daily basis and neglect the sweeter aspects of life.  Precisely those who usually value people with disabilities.  [Getty Images / dmphoto / iStock]

Respondents only imagine the difficulties that people with paraplegia face on a daily basis and neglect the sweeter aspects of life. Precisely those who usually value people with disabilities. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Thinking about not thinking about something is certainly not a successful strategy, and neither is countering yourself. A more promising avenue that we can all use to calm uncertainty, even when it does not reach “pathological” levels, comes from the work carried out by the third generation of cognitive and behavioral therapies, whose central idea lies in weakening the thoughts that provoke anxiety rather than fighting them in vain. These works, validated by various studies, are the origin of the so-called acceptance and commitment therapy (TAC). CT provides multiple tools to mitigate anxiety-causing thoughts beyond psychotherapies. In this regard, it is advisable to read the book  The Happiness Trap, from TAC expert psychotherapist Russ Harris.

We learn that anxiety-provoking thoughts are not, in themselves, the problem, but the credit we give them. To weaken a thought means to let it exist in consciousness, but without giving it importance. In other words, observing it as it is, as an autonomous production of our mind, and letting it go as it came. This approach is directly inspired by  mindfulness meditation.: we let thoughts flow like clouds in the sky of our mind without clinging to them. For example, we can “show gratitude” to the mind for the ideas it generates, even the most anxious ones, while it produces new ones and reminds us that, after all, a thought is nothing more than a thought. a succession of silent sounds in our consciousness. And nothing more. In the same way that an image is never reality, a thought is not reality, but only a mental representation of it, which, moreover, is often biased. The TAC speaks of cognitive defusion: we must distance ourselves from our thoughts instead of trying to modify them.

Happy Birthday! I’m going to lose my job!

CT has developed even more sophisticated techniques to weaken intrusive thoughts. One of them is to mentally express the idea that causes anxiety with a funny voice. Try repeating “It’s terrible, I’m going to get sick and lose my job” with the nervous tone of the comedian Louis de Funès playing the Saint-Tropez gendarme. You will see how everything suddenly sounds less dramatic. Another way to proceed is to tune the problematic thought to a familiar melody (e.g.  Happy Birthday). For the thoughts that arise in the form of images you can represent them on a movie screen, where you are a spectator. Beyond their apparent simplicity (mastering such strategies requires training), these tools are designed to create a distance between the thinker and the thought, to become aware that an idea is nothing more than a mental process with which we should not identify us.

In TAC therapy, the weakening of the thoughts refers to the term of acceptance. What does the second axis, that of commitment, propose to us? Changes in the world do not occur only through thoughts, but through the actions that these make possible. We always have the opportunity to act, even in situations of great uncertainty. In that case, we can identify our values ​​and take action, no matter how small, to head in that direction. It is about asking ourselves what is the smallest step we can take at that moment to move forward in the sense of what is important to us. If, for example, we are suffering from the social distancing imposed by health measures to fight the new coronavirus pandemic, it is we who must take small actions to strengthen ties with others. They can be, among others, contacting friends and family by phone or videoconference, staying in small groups of people respecting safety regulations, collaborating with a non-profit association and for social purposes, and so on. Action is always an antidote to depression: on the one hand, it mobilizes attention by diverting it from our concerns; on the other, and above all, making a concrete contribution to the world around us. Action is always an antidote to depression: on the one hand, it mobilizes attention by diverting it from our concerns; on the other, and above all, making a concrete contribution to the world around us. Action is always an antidote to depression: on the one hand, it mobilizes attention by diverting it from our concerns; on the other, and above all, making a concrete contribution to the world around us.

We are not helpless in the face of uncertainty and the anxiety that this entails. Psychology offers a multitude of tools to deal with it constructively. Being aware of the cognitive biases that aggravate our distress can help to make the trials we go through more relative. One of them is the aforementioned tendency to overestimate the setbacks that the future may bring us compared to happy events. There is also the inclination, in situations of uncertainty, to delight in information that generates anxiety and that, in some way, embodies said anguish. Above all, the tumult of our anxiety-provoking thoughts can be soothed and calmed so that we can act, even if our actions seem insignificant to us. in the direction of what we consider important. Therefore, our core values ​​are like the reassuring beacon that guides disoriented sailors in the fog.

Act with certainty in uncertainty. This phrase uttered by Conrad Lecomte, who was my clinical psychology professor at the University of Montreal twenty years ago, comes to mind frequently. The uncertainty, on which it is worth reflecting, is typical of our human condition. Faced with the destabilizing awareness, rather than being carried away by the vortices of anxiety, we can oppose it with an action of commitment dictated by our values. Action as an antidote to crisis: this is, without a doubt, how we can face the traps of our brain in the face of the challenges that await us.