In the kitchen of their home in Brimfield, Ohio, Craig and Heather Wargawsky have a wall-size family calendar. As recently as early March, that calendar was booked solid for the next two months.
“It was so full,” says Craig. “Crazy full.”
Craig, a 45-year-old high school teacher, was planning to take a group of students on a spring break trip to New York City—and then take his daughter, Leila, on a separate trip to Los Angeles to celebrate her 18th birthday. Meanwhile, Heather, a 44-year-old elementary school teacher, was expecting to travel to San Francisco for a work conference. The calendar also had entries for Leila’s work schedule, prom, and high school graduation party; practices and matches for the couple’s son, Dylan, a 16-year-old high school tennis player; and a planned family summer road trip to Seattle.
The coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
The trips were canceled. The restaurant where Leila worked shut down. Dylan’s tennis season abruptly ended. Schools closed, marooning the entire family at home to teach and learn remotely. The stock market dropped precipitously, leaving Craig and Heather to worry about their retirement plans and savings.
By May, the calendar was blank, with the family’s expectations replaced by wait and see.
“It got to the point where I would write June-ish just for fun,” Heather says. “But it meant nothing. And we didn’t know how long any of this would last.”
When it comes to not knowing what tomorrow will bring, the Wargawskys are hardly unique. Across the United States, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has created a secondary pandemic of individual and collective uncertainty, throwing the future into question.
Will I get sick with the virus? What about someone I love? Is my job secure? Are my investments? When will schools reopen? Or my favorite restaurant? What happens after the November election? Will there be a vaccine next year?
“From a health perspective, from a political perspective, and from an economic perspective, we live in uncertain times,” says Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology. “It surrounds us all. And what happens when people are placed in a situation with a lot of uncertainty? The answer is that there is a lot of stress and distress, playing out in many different ways.”
The good news? According to experts, there also are effective ways to cope with that stress and distress. Making plans for the future is one of those ways. It has played a big part in helping the Wargawskys remain resilient, regain a sense of control over their daily lives, and even move forward with financial confidence—all of which can be challenging when uncertainty reigns.
“Somewhere in the middle”
K ate Sweeny has been studying the effects of uncertainty for years. A psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, she focuses on how people deal with the ambiguity of waiting periods—including law students waiting for their bar exam scores, voters waiting on election night winners and losers, and patients waiting on the results of biopsies.
The common denominator among these different groups? “Uncertainty is generally not great for us,” she says. “We find it to be uncomfortable. It creates worry. It affects people’s sleep and health.”
Not all uncertainty is bad. The suspense of not knowing how a mystery novel or favorite television show is going to end can be thrilling—otherwise, we wouldn’t need spoiler alerts—and some research has found that people feel more excited about and work harder on tasks when the size of a promised reward is uncertain.
But when the stakes are higher and potentially negative, our tolerance for uncertainty dramatically decreases. Studies have found that people would rather suffer a strong electric shock immediately than be forced to wait up to 15 minutes for a more mild jolt, and that physical and emotional measures of stress peak when uncertainty is highest.
“People will say anecdotally and in our research studies that they would rather get bad news now than not know what is coming,” Sweeny says. “But in a rational world, that doesn’t make sense—why not prefer having hope for good news? So the question is, why do we respond to uncertainty this way?”
The answer, Sweeny and other experts suspect, lies in human evolution. Tens of thousands of years ago, our distant ancestors who were more at ease when life was predictable—and, crucially, more anxious or fearful when it wasn’t—might have been more likely to survive life’s vicissitudes and pass those traits on.
“There’s a utility for being uncomfortable when you don’t know what is coming,” Sweeny says. “We have this very complex system of emotions because they do things for us. They motivate us to act in ways that are beneficial for our well-being and survival. If you’re too comfortable with uncertainty, then you won’t work to resolve it—and many more bad things could happen.”
What uncertainty does to…
In times of uncertainty, the brain demands extra energy, and activity increases in areas associated with fear and hypervigilance. Persistent uncertainty—the kind that comes with living in a volatile and insecure environment for extended periods of time—can alter the architecture of our brains in ways that not only damage our ability to cope with uncertainty but also create a higher long-term risk of depression and cognitive impairment.
Uncertainty can trigger our fight-or-flight response, a cascade of stress hormones that make us sweaty, tense our muscles, dilate our pupils, speed up our breathing and heart rate, and prepare us to take on immediate threats. One study found that all physical measures of stress max out when uncertainty is highest.
When we can’t accurately predict the future, we tend to feel nervous, worried, and uneasy about what will come next. In fact, research shows that waiting for the outcomes of tumor biopsies and fertility treatments creates more anxiety than receiving a diagnosis. Scientists also have found that low tolerance of uncertainty is associated with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Of course, people often can’t resolve the sources of uncertainty in their lives. That’s especially true of COVID-19. “It’s a novel virus, which means we don’t understand it very well,” Epstein says. “So it’s hard for us to make predictions. Think of all the predictions that have been made going back to February, and think of how they have been changing.
“Alongside that, we keep hearing different and conflicting things from our government and the experts associated with our government, day after day, which makes it hard to know what is going on and who to trust.”
Earlier this year, a study on the effects of pandemic lockdowns in the United Kingdom found that nearly 25 percent of respondents were suffering greater anxiety and depression in lockdown than they had before lockdown—and that the key factors for how people were coping were their “intolerance of uncertainty” and how they handled that intolerance.
That finding wasn’t surprising. Low tolerance of uncertainty in individuals has been associated with depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
According to Epstein, one of the oldest experiments in psychology involves sending a laboratory rat down a runway. Sometimes the rat receives food; sometimes, an electric jolt. “What happens is that the rat starts to run down, and then back, and then back and forth,” he says. “Eventually, the rat will just stop somewhere in the middle.”
Uncertainty, Epstein says, can have the same effect on people. “It’s very, very hard to make decisions in this pandemic,” he says. “Should I buy a new car or not? Buy some stock or not? Go on vacation or not? Quit my job knowing I might not be able to get another one?
“Uncertainty is not just stressful. It’s immobilizing. We can end up like that rat on the runway. And when you’re stuck and know you need to be doing something, that can add to the stress.”
How to Cope With Uncertainty
The coronavirus pandemic is causing unprecedented uncertainty—and with that, stress and anxiety. Michael Wetzel, Chief Medical Director for Equitable, says that some of the best ways to cope are simple: exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, get good sleep, and take proper care of any underlying medical conditions. “It sounds so basic, but these are things that will relieve stress and help your immune system,” he says. “And keeping yourself physically healthy will help keep you mentally healthy.”
Here are four other ways to care for yourself →
Make a plan
About a decade ago, psychologist Robert Epstein conducted a study of 3,000 people in the United States and 29 other countries to better understand happiness. He made two surprising discoveries. First, about 25 percent of our happiness depends on how well we manage stress; second, the best way to manage stress is through planning.
“It’s extremely helpful,” says Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology. “And the reason is simple: People who plan tend to avoid stress before it even occurs. You probably know someone who plans every detail of a trip. Well, that reduces uncertainty when traveling. They know day after day where their meals are coming from, where they are sleeping. They are reducing the likelihood of encountering stressors.”
Limit your news intake
When markets plunged during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Kyle Schiffer, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional with Equitable Advisors, received panicked calls and emails from clients who wanted to cash out or buy gold. “I could tell they were having a fight-or-flight reaction,” he says. “It’s like seeing a bear in the woods—except COVID-19 was like a huge grizzly bear standing three feet in front of you.”
Since then, however, Schiffer has noticed something: “My clients who disconnected from news or social media completely—or just tried to limit their time on both—have been the most calm,” he says. That isn’t a coincidence. Research on previous community crises such as school shootings and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic suggests that repeated media exposure to those events can lead to increased anxiety and heightened stress responses, and a recent study of 6,500 people found that COVID-19 news produced a similar effect.
“Hours of repeated exposure to bad news is not psychologically beneficial,” says Roxane Cohen Silver, one of the authors of the study on COVID-19 media exposure and a professor of psychological science, medicine, and public health at the University of California, Irvine. “So check the news a few times a day. But don’t keep the Johns Hopkins [University COVID-19] map open on your monitor all day long.”
Find your flow
Earlier this year, a team of researchers who studied more than 5,000 people in Wuhan and other Chinese cities affected by COVID-19 found that entering “flow states”—that is, becoming so absorbed in an enjoyable activity that you become unconcerned about yourself, your environment, or the passage of time—helped people alleviate stress, particularly during quarantine.
How do you achieve flow? University of California, Riverside, psychology professor Kate Sweeny suggests video games, admitting that she’s currently “hooked” on a popular Japanese title that involves living in a virtual village populated by humanlike animals. “The kinds of activities that tend to get you there are enjoyable, but that by itself is not enough,” Sweeny says. “There needs to be a challenge that pushes your skills, but not too much. And you need to track your progress somehow. Video games are great for this because they are designed to get harder as players get better.”
Picture the future
Humans have a unique ability to mentally time travel by taking on the perspective of their future selves. Some research suggests that doing this purposefully, a strategy called “temporal distancing,” can help alleviate current emotional distress.
“We have many folk sayings about the healing power of time,” says Ozlem Ayduk, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “What temporal distancing does is enable us to capitalize on that insight by imagining the future instead of waiting for actual time to pass. When things right now feel very raw and upsetting, ask yourself: How am I going to feel about this in 10 years? Imagine yourself a week from now, a month from now, a year from now.”
Since March, Ayduk has been practicing temporal distancing when thinking about visiting her elderly mother, who lives in Turkey. “Of course I use it!” she says. “We don’t know when this is going to end, but we have to remind ourselves it isn’t going to last forever. We are going to get out of this.”
“It’s really important to lay out a plan”
T he Wargawskys can relate. As they realized in late March that schools would remain closed and the pandemic would not end quickly, Heather, an art teacher, became fearful that she might lose her job. State officials were talking budget cuts. “Some local districts did end up cutting art and music in elementary school,” she says. “You wonder if they see you as this fluff subject, something the other classroom teachers can teach as well.”
The couple worried about their children, who were missing out on their everyday lives. They worried about their students, too—especially Heather, who teaches at an inner city school. She understood that the pandemic was proving especially difficult and dangerous for lower-income families.
Like almost everyone, the Wargawskys also feared contracting a potentially deadly virus they had learned about only weeks ago. “We were scared to cross the street to talk to our neighbors,” Heather says.
The couple owns a few properties that they rent to college students—but with restaurants closed and public health measures in effect, those students, who work as servers, suddenly couldn’t cover rent. “So we had more money going out than coming in,” Heather says, “and there was no certainty whatsoever of when they would be able to go back to work.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Wargawskys’ retirement investments dropped alongside a stock market that lost more than 20 percent of its value between late February and late March. “That messed with our heads,” Craig says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, what just happened? And what is going to happen?’”
How can people cope with that feeling? One of the most effective strategies may also be the most counterintuitive: when the future seems unpredictable, start planning for it.
Alison Holman, a University of California, Irvine, professor of nursing and psychological science, studies how collective traumas like the pandemic create stress by warping people’s sense of time—leaving them in a perpetually stressful present that feels disconnected from the past and future they once knew and yearned for.
To regain a feeling of forward progress, Holman says, it’s vital to establish “a sense of what you’re going to do today, tomorrow, and the next day to reach toward a future goal.”
Of course, COVID-19 can make that difficult. “Schools might be shut down for another year,” Epstein says. “Vaccines may not necessarily solve the problem when they turn up—they haven’t solved the flu problem. Even if you are an excellent planner, this pandemic makes it hard.”
But not impossible. The key, experts say, is to set achievable goals and adopt realistic expectations about what you can achieve in both the short and long term—all of which, research shows, can help resolve the stress that uncertainty creates in the body and mind.
“And give yourself small, realistic steps toward those goals, and reward yourself when you achieve them,” Holman says. “It’s really important to lay out a plan. That will give you at least a modicum of control in your life, which helps to undermine that feeling of uncertainty. The steps you take now can help you move forward to the future you hope to have when the pandemic is under control.”
“This pandemic is teaching us to take things in smaller steps.”
H eather Wargawsky concurs. Early in the pandemic, she and Craig had a long talk with their financial advisor, Angela Anderson, who has worked with the couple for almost 17 years. “We’ve seen every step in her life, and she has seen every step in ours,” Craig says. “Marriage, kids, moving up.”
That trust proved essential. At the beginning of the conversation, Heather was feeling anxious—especially about the family’s retirement investments. “My knee-jerk reaction to everything was, ‘Craig, we have to start pulling money out!’” she says.
Rather than discuss any immediate financial moves, Anderson had Heather talk through her deeper fear of losing her job. Next, she asked the Wargawskys to make a plan for that possibility—and other contingencies, too, like the couple’s tenants continuing to have financial difficulties, or market ups and downs continuing to make their retirement investments appear endangered.
“It was, ‘Okay, what happens if you do lose your job?’” says Anderson, a retirement benefits planner with Equitable Advisors. “We talked through all the what-ifs, what they would do, and how they would still be taken care of.”
Anderson showed the couple that despite Heather’s fears, they were prepared to weather a potential layoff lasting as long as two years. “Once we got through that, we looked at the long-term picture,” says Anderson, who reminded the Wargawskys that although the pandemic understandably was causing immediate market volatility, their retirement investment strategy was designed to play out over a much longer period.
“She really stressed the long term,” Craig says. “And she helped us remember the other decisions we are making that are smart. We don’t have five credit cards that are maxed out. We were going to spend a lot of money traveling, and now we aren’t.”
“Putting everything into that giant timeline for retirement made things more okay,” Heather says. “We’re not at retirement age yet. We’re not even close. And we have a plan to get there.”
“Fear feeds on fear,” Anderson says. “Sometimes we all need reminders of what we can and can’t control.”
With their long-term future feeling less uncertain, the Wargawskys have been able to focus more on the former as they settle into their new normal. Craig is back in a socially distanced classroom, wearing a mask and teaching a limited number of students. Leila and Dylan are taking online classes.
Heather is still teaching remotely. But unlike in the spring, she says, she has “a lesson plan book and can plan three to four weeks out. That helps.”
The pandemic continues, with no definitive end in sight. Yet the family’s calendar is starting to fill up again—mostly with little plans, like haircuts and dental appointments. Each is a step away from being stuck and toward a more certain future.
“There are so many things not in our hands,” Craig says. “So you can’t stress about every single situation. This pandemic is teaching us to take things in smaller steps.”