“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”
~ mathematician John Allen Paulos
Uncertainty is a universal part of the human experience. We’ve all experienced uncertainty and felt that extra layer of stress it adds to our day-to-day lives: we feel a little more on edge, a little less zen. The psychological effects of uncertainty are especially strong in those struggling with depression or anxiety, and having ways to deal with uncertainty are key. Today, we’re going to take the Zika virus as an example of an uncertain situation and provide a few tips on how to best combat the stress that uncertainty may produce in you or your loved ones.
The Zika Virus
The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus as a global health emergency this week with primary outbreaks in central and South America and a few isolated cases in US travelers. Zika is a virus transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito; it has been linked to cases of babies born with microcephaly, a rare condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and often an underdeveloped brain.
Though scientists are racing to develop vaccines and treatments, we don’t have prevention or treatment strategies at this time. The virus is particularly devious, as it produces no symptoms in about 80% of individuals or only mild symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes in the remaining 20%.
Why does the Zika virus cause so much uncertainty and fear?
The virus poses a unique risk to the fetuses of pregnant women in the first trimester (first 13 weeks) of pregnancy. But there are many unanswered questions and uncertainties about Zika. We don’t know what percent of pregnant women infected in the first trimester actually end up having microcephalic babies. We don’t know whether this happens in asymptomatic or just in symptomatic women. Doctors sometimes can’t tell whether a baby has microcephaly until she is born, and even if a child does have microcephaly, there’s still a 10% chance the child will develop normally.
If you’re in the United States, you probably don’t need to worry about these things (though for now, we recommend avoiding areas where Zika is rampant). But for pregnant women in affected countries, living with the uncertainty of whether you’ve had Zika, whether your baby has microcephaly, and whether your baby will have developmental delay is very scary. So how would we recommend dealing with the anxiety that this and other uncertainty creates?
Dealing with uncertainty
There are no quick fixes, but here are three strategies that are easy to learn and effective if you use them regularly.
1. Begin a simple meditation/breathing practice
Slow, deep breathing - in through the nose, out through the mouth - is an evidence-based practice for decreasing levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Simultaneously relaxing your shoulders and facial muscles further relieves tension. If you practice this a few times a day, you can quiet the sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response that our bodies lurch into in times of stress.
Exercise has been found to be just as effective as antidepressants in reducing depressive symptoms. Both increase levels of a protein called BNDF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) in the brain, which promotes new growth in certain brain regions that regulate memory and emotion to exert an antidepressant effect. Exercise also increases levels of endorphins (the body’s homemade opiates) and endocannabinoids (cannabinoids are also found in marijuana), both of which produce senses of calm and happiness.
3. Prepare for all scenarios
Regaining a sense of control over your own fate is one of the most important factors in reducing anxiety from uncertainty. Work with someone who can help you see your situation from a realistic point of view and think of the scenarios that may occur. Then imagine yourself in each scenario and come up with an actionable plan for each. Addressing the scenarios head-on will help you stay away from that generalized ill-defined fear of the unknown that always seems most paralyzing.
The Zika virus probably isn’t going away anytime soon, and the above strategies probably won’t change the ultimate outcome of your uncertainty. But they’ll help you get through it, and maybe you’ll even find that they’ll change your life for the better.