Over the past nine months, the word “uncertainty” has cropped up time and time again across the news and social media worldwide. The pandemic has created uncertainty in nearly every aspect of daily life.

This is not only down to worries over exposure to COVID-19 and access to medical care, but also concerns about the stability of the economy, job security, the availability of food and household supplies – and even when to book a holiday. We have needed to adjust and readjust our behaviour continually in response to changing risks and government guidelines.

My research focuses on “intolerance of uncertainty” – when uncertainty leads to high levels of distress. Recent research has highlighted that intolerance of uncertainty is likely to play a key role in our mental health as we cope with the pandemic. Understanding how we respond to uncertainty may help us alleviate some of the mental strain of the pandemic.

Uncertainty makes it difficult for us to predict what decisions to make and how to act. For this reason, it is common to find uncertainty upsetting, confusing and frustrating.

But some people tend to find uncertainty particularly distressing and challenging to cope with. They worry excessively over what will happen, as well as avoid situations with uncertainty. Ultimately, this distress makes good outcomes less pleasurable and bad outcomes more stressful.

Intolerance of uncertainty can be found within many different mental health issues. These include anxiety, mood, post-traumatic stress, eating and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The pandemic has introduced an unexpected new level of uncertainty into all our lives. The obvious downside is that uncertainty on such a mass scale will likely lead to greater, more intense and generalised uncertainty distress in people with pre-existing mental health conditions. It may also generate further new cases in people who are vulnerable or at risk of developing mental health conditions due to their circumstances.

People are now relying on mental health services more than ever. It is likely that this increased demand on mental health services will continue over the next couple of years at the very least.

Learning to cope

But the pandemic has presented an opportunity to raise awareness of uncertainty distress and how to best cope with it in the general population.

Experimental research suggests that individuals with higher self-reported intolerance of uncertainty may benefit from clearer safety information and more experience of uncertainty.

It’s important to learn that uncertainty doesn’t always mean that something bad will happen – and it’s possible that current psychological therapies that aim to change core beliefs could be modified to target uncertainty distress.

So how do we apply this research to our experiences of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond? Uncertainty is a complex beast and may manifest itself in many different ways – but there are some things we can do to manage it.

Mental health professionals have suggested a number of different steps that can help. First and foremost, we can recognise that uncertainty is an inevitable part of life and we should take the time to acknowledge how it makes us feel.

Secondly, we can think about whether minimising uncertainty is a realistic or useful goal. For example, in relation to the pandemic, we can reduce some uncertainty related to COVID-19 transmission by following the government guidelines as best we can – while recognising that there are other aspects that are out of our control.

We can also challenge our uncertainty tolerance by expanding our comfort zone at our own pace. For instance, you could try ordering food from a new restaurant or watch a film that you know nothing about.

Encouragingly, the pandemic has spurred researchers and mental health professionals to band together in exploring potential solutions for uncertainty distress management.

At this stage, it is hard to measure what the impact of sustained uncertainty on such a global scale will be. For instance, we may end up with a global generation of people who are accepting of uncertainty – or who find uncertainty intolerable.

For now, we will just have to monitor the situation, apply what strategies we can and prepare ourselves for the endless outcomes and possibilities.

Jayne Morriss is a senior research fellow in the Department of Psychology.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.