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The Pain Of Living During Uncertain Times by Dr. Elissa R. Gross

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

The Pain Of Living During Uncertain Times by Dr. Elissa R. Gross, Bergen Cunty Moms

"Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won't have a title until much later." ---Bob Goff Many of my clients, friends, and family members have felt overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, burnt out, defeated and hopeless as the state of uncertainty created by the Covid Pandemic continues on. The truth is that even before the pandemic turned our lives upside down, the only certainty in life has always been that life is uncertain!

For those of us who have been managing to get by more or less unscathed thus far, an unexpected personal, or global, crisis or tragedy has suddenly called into question just how much control we actually have. Case in point: the Global Covid Pandemic.

The pandemic is driving the point home: we cannot control everything in our lives and the more we try to deny this and seek control and certainty, the more distressed we become. In fact, with rates of anxiety and depression on the rise since the Pandemic began, one thing is clear. We must learn to accept uncertainty and focus on the things that we can control if we are to make it through this pandemic with some semblance of peace. As our carefully constructed lives begin to unravel during the pandemic, the key to maintaining our well-being is radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is the active process of coming to accept things as they are; radical acceptance moves us out of emotional turmoil and reactivity into a calmer, more logical state of mind that allows us to better focus on what we can control. Though radical acceptance goes against everything our more primitive brains tell us to do, by actively working to accept what is rather than focus on what should or shouldn’t be, we can achieve a sense of inner peace thereby building the resilience necessary to cope with uncertainty. As counterintuitive as it may be, it is only when we are able to come to terms with what is that we are able to make the changes that allow us to feel better.

Why are we all so consumed with the need for control and certainty?

The human brain craves certainty.

The brain craves certainty. Some of the emotions associated with a sense of certainty and control include: satisfaction, contentedness, calm, comfort, stability, and safety. In stark contrast, feelings of uncertainty about the future create a sense of threat, or alert, in the limbic system. When faced with uncertainty, our amygdala lights up signalling danger, often triggering the fight, flight or flee response. Because of this, many of us begin to “fight” by becoming exclusively focused on information gathering and certaintyseeking to create a sense of control. To reduce the extreme discomfort that comes with ambiguity and uncertainty we even craft beliefs that create the illusion of control. Because we are much more comfortable under these conditions, many of us tend to do things like go for that seemingly “certain” job or stay in that familiar relationship. Whether or not we are happy with that job or relationship, our need for certainty often compels us to stay with “the devil we know” as opposed to taking the risk of choosing “the devil we don’t know.” When we do this, we shut the door on the multitude of possibilities that life may have in store for us. What happens when we are overly focused on certainty? Many of us have come to believe that certainty is the rule ( i.e., if I do X, Y will happen and I will feel Z) while uncertainty is the exception. When we sense that things aren't going our way, we often believe that if we think hard enough, try hard enough, or try long enough, eventually we will figure out how to get to the outcome we believe we should achieve. When we are overly focused on certainty and control, our worlds can become very small. By focusing on the specific outcome we think we “should “ achieve, we are often unable to see all of the other possibilities. In addition, when things don’t go the way we want them to, we may become fixated on the” shoulds” and the “shouldn’ts.” We become overly focused on what should or should not be happening to us and what we or other people should or should not be doing. A focus on the shoulds and the shouldn’ts sets us up for disappointment and a feeling that we have failed when things don’t go our way. This can lead to feelings such as anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness and despair. Sometimes an exclusive focus on certainty sets us up for total paralysis when our plans don't come to fruition. For people bent on certainty life may start to feel it’s working against us when unexpected events occur because they challenge our need for certainty. Living in the solution: Practicing radical acceptance. By focusing instead on accepting what is, we can feel all of our feelings and then let them go and move into the solution. The solution often involves focusing on what we can control such as the way that we think about situations and other people, the cultivation of inner peace and the strengthening of our relationships. Focusing on what we can control enables us to better withstand that which we cannot control. It's important to note that radical acceptance is not a condoning of what is, nor does it mean that we are happy about, or resigned to, what is. It simply means that we are accepting the fact that we cannot change reality. Ironically, by accepting reality, we are freed up to put our energy into making the changes that we can make. How do we know if we are accepting reality?

Chances are that if you are thinking the following things, you are in a state of resistance rather than acceptance. Resisting reality keeps us stuck in the problem and prevents us from creating solutions.

Some common thoughts that suggest you are not practicing radical acceptance:

  • Things should be different!

  • Things shouldn’t be like this.

  • I cannot deal with this!

  • This isn’t fair!

  • This wasn’t supposed to happen.

  • Why is this happening to me?

Examining the thoughts that prevent us from practicing Radical Acceptance.

Byron Katie, who created an approach to help us accept reality called “The Work,” realized that her own depression seemed to be caused by her thoughts. When she thought others should treat her better, or her life should be easier, etc etc. she felt angry, disappointed, rejected, unloved, lonely and depressed. The Work is a set of exercises that can be used to help us look at and challenge our beliefs, and to begin to consider what we would think, feel and do differently if we didn't have these thoughts. My clients and I have found it extremely powerful to imagine what would happen if we suspended our beliefs: imagining how we would feel and what we would do differently if we didn’t hold onto certain beliefs gives us a taste of how different life could be if only we could let go of our limiting beliefs. Once having done this exercise, many of my clients have also found it helpful to write down a list of their greatest fears and all of their imagined worst case scenarios. Once this is done, they go back and write out the same scenarios with alternate outcomes. For example, Fear: “Because of this pandemic, I am going to lose my job; if I lose my job, I’ll lose my home and I may even lose my family.”

This can be rewritten in several ways. For example, “Maybe I won’t lose my job, home and family.” “Maybe I will find a new and even better job so I can better support my family.” This exercise takes us out of our focus on a certain outcome and opens up the many other possibilities, creating a shift in perspective that can further help us to move out of the problem and into the solutions. Radical Acceptance and beyond.

At this point you may be wondering, “If I practice radical acceptance, do I just sit around and allow life to happen to me?’ The answer is NO! Once we are able to accept life on life’s terms, and accept that we cannot change what has happened nor can we change our current reality, we can absolutely channel energy previously spent on lamenting the present circumstances into controlling the things that we actually can control, and changing the things that we can! Reminding ourselves that reality cannot be changed, and that we do not have control over situations and people in our lives, is a first step to practicing radical acceptance. Many people find reciting the serenity prayer to be a helpful reminder: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The following are some suggestions:

  • Follow your regular routine when possible; if not possible, create a new routine to provide structure and direction.

  • Be intentional with your short term goals and when planning your schedule.

  • Create rituals such as a morning cup of coffee while reading a book you love before heading to work, writing a family gratitude list over dinner, playing a board game with loved ones before bed time.

  • Keep a running list of your daily accomplishments, no matter how small, to remind yourself what you have achieved at the end of the day.

  • Practice self care: eat nourishing foods, exercise and get enough sleep.

  • Build new skills to improve your sense of mastery.

  • Create coping cards with coping statements such as

    • I am able to accept the present”,

    • I can get through difficult times even if it is hard”

    • I’ll get through this no matter what”

    • This is temporary”

    • I can create a new path even if I feel bad right now”

    • Stop judging situations as “good” or “bad”

    • Remind yourself of the times that life didn’t go your way and a different, and maybe even better, path opened up to you.

    • Know this: feelings are not facts; Just because you feel hopeless about your future doesn't mean your future is hopeless

  • Practice meditation, yoga, and breathing for relaxation

  • Do something you enjoy every day

Dr. Elissa R. Gross, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy and the mother of two teenage sons who specializes in the treatment of children, adolescents and adults experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, posttraumatic stress disorders, couples' therapy, family therapy, and issues related to adoption and blended families. She received her Bachelor's degree from Duke University, where she was an integral member of several research teams at the Duke University Medical Center studying the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and Eating Disorders. Dr. Gross received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at The Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, part of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. Throughout graduate school, Dr. Gross received extensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, family systems therapy, group therapy and psychodynamic therapy. Dr. Gross completed her clinical internship at the NYU Medical Center, and was then hired on as a staff member, treating children, adolescents and adults via individual and group psychotherapy, as well as supervising doctoral interns.


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