Updated: Feb 19, 2020
We all have encountered big changes for which we weren't ready at some point in our lives.
We have also been in transition periods throughout our lives, having to choose between several options, where none of them were we absolutely certain about.
Although we, as humans, always prefer to have things certain and planned as we find it the most comfortable, a big part of our lives is also the uncertainty of what can happen. Therefore, there's no other way to live a happy life than to learn how to deal with uncertainty.
While some people are relatively good at welcoming new things - expected, or unexpected- into their lives, many of us constantly worry about what could happen in this situation, or the other, and try to be on top of every possible outcome scenario.
Not being able to deal with uncertainty can even lead to anxiety and depression (1).
Knowing that there's no way we can really escape uncertainty and changes in our lives, the best way to be happy would be to just learn how to cope with the uncertainty, right?
It is, of course, often MUCH easier said than done.
A few years ago, I was doing my thesis work abroad. Already from the first day, or actually first hour of the first day, I felt that I made the wrong decision.
I was going through emotional breakdowns every single day as the project was way beyond my level of education at that time, and I was therefore not finding it very interesting either. I also didn't feel secure and confident enough ask my supervisor any questions, without feeling judged and I didn't feel supported and social with the few colleagues I had there. I went though 2.5 months in a toxic environment only relying on the thought that everyday, I am one more day close to finishing this project.
Until the head of the department told me to stop this project immediately and look for something new. I got let go from a thesis project because my supervisor wanted to move on with their work instead of teaching and helping me with a complex project that was too advanced for me then.
Being totally devastated in a foreign country, not even knowing whether I'd have to go back home or stay there, or if I could even graduate in time, I was having my first ever (and only one so far) panic attack.
The following few weeks were totally uncertain as I decided to look for a new project both back at home and abroad. I did not know whether I could keep my student room abroad and felt totally beaten down after the experience. How would I even have the courage to completely start over and what if it also turns out to be bad?
Having worked hard to find the perfect project this time, a few weeks later I was having my first day at the new position. It felt so right straight away.
My colleagues were amazing, I connected really well with my supervisor, both on a professional and personal level and my project was very interesting and something I was really excited to work hard for and was very proud of.
As you can see, being let go from my first project was actually a great thing for me, I just didn't know about it when it happened.
I learned many great things, became friends with amazing people and most importantly, learned how deal with uncertainty and changes in my life much better.
Here are my best tips of dealing with change and uncertainty:
Ride the waves of your feelings that come up.
Similarly to my previous post about urge surfing, it is important to observe our feelings that arrive when we find ourselves in uncertain situations.
Start by taking a few breaths and non-judgementally observe the thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise. This is a great way to use mindfulness to acknowledge your situation and initiate dealing with it in a calm manner.
Just let all the feelings, thoughts and emotions enter and leave your mind. Try to localize where in your body you are feeling the particular feelings. Most importantly, try to act as an observer of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that are racing though your head at that moment. And if you do get caught up in any of them, it's okay. Just bring your awareness back to the observer role as soon as you do.
Take your time to feel all the feelings without trying to distract yourself from them in any way, before you are truly ready to move on. It's also great to talk about it with someone close to you, to just talk it out or even gain another perspective.
When I got calmer after my panic attack of being let go from my thesis work, I took a long walk and reflected on my situation. I also talked about it with my boyfriend, parents and friends, which helped immensely.
Accept the fact that you cannot control everything and make a plan for the things you can control.
A big step of embracing uncertainty is understanding that we don't have complete power over every situation of our lives.
Instead of being present in the moment we are currently living and enjoying what we have, we often get caught up in thinking about uncertain situations, trying to predict their outcomes.
This leads us to either reliving the same outcome twice- once it in our heads and once when it actually happens, or when a whole different outcome occurs, all the things we had previously thoroughly thought about were for nothing.
In some situations, like preparing for possible questions they may ask at a job interview, thinking through different alternatives is a great way to use your mind as a tool to prepare your answers and feel much more confident
This is a proactive approach. You can also read more about proactivity in my earlier blog post.
However, in other cases, we may find ourselves worrying about the things that are totally out of our control. Those are, for example, another applicant who applies for the same job as you and is more qualified than you.
You may therefore worry that they will choose the other participant over you and constantly think of the different ways they might tell you that you didn't get the job. Every time the phone rings, you jump and get instantly nervous about them telling you that you didn't get it.
In this type of situation, the proactive approach would instead be reflecting upon your contributions, and deciding what you can do to move forward, if you don't get the job. You may, for example, apply for other positions to ensure that you become employed if they choose the other candidate.
Reflect on the times when you wanted something, but didn't get it, and the teachings you have received from them.
Have you ever reflected upon the time when you didn't get that job you wanted, but it lead to something better? Or if your past relationship, that you so badly wanted to work out, had actually worked out the way you wanted - how different (and maybe less happy) your life would be right now?
I always try to think this way nowadays, as soon as I find myself worrying about change.
For example, I have learned so much from my rocky thesis work experience.
Since then, I have been making more conscious decisions regarding where I want to work at, what type of people I want to be surrounded with and where my true interests lie.
I realized to trust my gut feeling more and not take something that doesn't feel one hundred percent certain.
I also realized that the social aspect at work is extremely important for me, therefore I strive to get great contact with my colleagues right away.
If I wasn't pushed to change my thesis projects, I may have never even started this blog as I may not have become so interested in neuroscience, which also lead me to becoming interested in psychology and mindfulness.
So, although the experience was very horrible when it was happening, I am so grateful for it and for everything that it taught me. I know now that I can get through a lot.
We often tend to see situations in life either as positive, or negative and uncertainty almost always seems negative to us.
However, certain changes that we might initially see as bad, can actually turn out to be great.
I'm sure you've also had similar experiences, that you initially found bad, but ended up making you into the person that you are now.
My tip for you today is to take a moment and write down a difficult change or a time of uncertainty that you have encountered. Then make a list of all the things the experience has taught you. Also, think of the ways that it has impacted your life and lead to the person you are today.
You can even write a list of what you are grateful for from the experience, in a similar manner explained in my earlier post about gratitude.
A big part of being human is dealing with all the ups and downs that life brings us and constantly adjusting ourselves and our lives to changes and uncertainty.
Trust in the process and believe that things will work out great, even if it might not seem that way.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog, by subscribing to my mailing list below.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Yook, K., Kim, K. H., Suh, S. Y., & Lee, K. S. (2010). Intolerance of uncertainty, worry, and rumination in major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of anxiety disorders, 24(6), 623-628.