Uncertainty causes stress. It’s worse for our psyche than a known negative. There was a recent experiment in which some subjects received an electrical shock 100 percent of the time, while others were only shocked 50 percent of the time. Those who received shocks half the time were more stressed than those who were shocked every time. That’s because our brains are wired to react to uncertainty with fear and anxiety.
How much anxiety? According to the American Psychological Association, 69 percent of Americans are stressed about the future of our country. We’re becoming more anxious about our safety, health and finances. Americans are among the most anxious people on Earth — 1 in 5 of us have anxiety disorder. Our young people are worried about mass shootings, while people of all ages are experiencing stress, caused by our toxic political environment.
It’s ironic that our anxiety about the country’s future is rising, at the same time most of us are hopeful about our own futures. Beyond casting our votes, which Americans did in record numbers this year, we don’t have control over the political environment. That is why we must combat uncertainty on a personal basis.
I found some helpful tips from Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. He said that, instead of automatically reacting to uncertainty with fear, we can identify these fears as irrational thoughts. For example, the private detective business is full of uncertainty. I often travel long distances, not knowing whether the person I’m looking for is going to be there. I have to calm my fear that I’m wasting time and mileage and hope for a good outcome.
Staying positive can help us cope with uncertainty. Lately, I’ve been making a mental list of things for which I’m grateful. It helps me face adversity, without being defeated. I also set realistic goals for the day. If I’m on deadline, my first priority is to write a column. Then I focus on my most urgent detective cases. It helps me feel in control of my day.
Dr. Bradberry also recommends embracing the things we can’t control. I had investigators who couldn’t cope with the uncontrollable. They couldn’t see driving to Joliet, for example, without any guarantee of success. I would have to coax them to leave the office. It’s better to make some intelligent attempts than be paralyzed by fear of failure.
Every decision we make is going to have a degree of uncertainty. We don’t need the added distraction of worrying about the outcome. We also shouldn’t be seeking perfection. It’s better to be thankful for small victories than dwelling on our defeats. Sometimes we have to filter out negative opinions and trust our instincts that we’re taking the best course of action.
If our Plan A doesn’t work, we have Plan B ready to go. We’re not afraid to acknowledge mistakes and admit that we’re wrong. I make mistakes on a daily basis and learn from them. Dr. Bradberry discourages speculation. He said that “What if?” questions are not helpful. As a detective, I’ve learned not to have any expectations. Preconceived ideas can cripple an investigation.
Finally, when all else fails to calm us in the face of uncertainty, we should breathe. Focusing on each breath keeps us from fretting about the future. When I can’t sleep due to my mind racing, I do an exercise I call “blank and breathe.” I keep my mind blank and count my breaths.
There is another coping skill not on Dr. Bradberry’s list and it’s particularly helpful this time of year. Make soup. It’s nature’s ultimate comfort food.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com