I’m struggling to write this blog entry- I’m too preoccupied with thinking about school starting. Instead of focusing on writing, my brain won’t stop running through scenarios given limited and changing facts and circumstances. School starts on August 17, but due to covid 19, Boise School District is delaying the start of “in-person” school and opting for children to attend virtually instead. I’m sure this was a smart move- I’m just as concerned about the health of our community’s children and teachers as anyone else. BUT… I also work outside the home and need a safe place to put my five-year-old who will be spending at least part of his day learning online now. Not knowing what will happen with is making me a nervous wreck. Who will watch my child while I’m at work?
So, I did what every other parent is doing right now, and I panicked. And scrambled. I texted other moms including the only stay-at-home mom that I know. She said she MIGHT be able to help some days IF her husband is okay with it (he works from home). I talked to the director of my son’s summer program who mentioned they MIGHT be able to extend the program IF they can get the church they run it out of to agree. I found a couple groups on Facebook of parents in similar situations each open to joining a micro school group or mom co-op IF their other (preferable) options don’t work out. With so many variables, it feels like trying to find footing on shifting sand.
All of the solutions I try to come up with are contingent upon factors out of my control. There are a lot of ifs and maybes. I hate it. And I’m not alone. It turns out the human brain is wired to dislike uncertainty. A research study found that, counterintuitively, when a subject was told there was a fifty percent chance they’d experience a painful shock, they were more stressed than the subjects who knew pain was coming with certainty. In another study, women who may have breast cancer were shown to be the most stressed out before the diagnosis. Even with a cancer diagnosis, they felt better- they had something to focus on and control. The conclusion is clear: Uncertainty is stressful!
I’ve heard uncertainty referred to as the “tiger you can’t see”. If you are walking down the street and see a tiger, your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system to produce a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Your heart will pound as blood is diverted from your brain and digestive system into your legs and arms so that you can run as fast as you can away from all those sharp teeth. When you are safely away from the threat, your parasympathetic nervous systems calms you down again. With uncertainty, it’s like walking through tall grass in the dark and then hearing a noise- it could be a tiger or just the wind. Your brain has to stay in a state of fluidity to be prepared for either scenario. Being constantly braced for impact is damaging to our emotional and physical states- as any expert on trauma and toxic stress will tell you.
In the days of covid, it’s like walking around with dozens of tigers we know are there and they are all invisible! No wonder we are all having such a hard time. The good news is even though the brain evolved to disdain uncertainty, it can be hacked. One of the reasons uncertainty is so stressful is that humans have varying degrees of a negativity bias and tend to think the worst will happen. Imagining various scenarios that all have one outcome- that everyone is okay- and thinking about how to get there is one way to hack your brain and increase your “optimism bias” to bring back some control. Even if the control is actually an illusion, it won’t matter, just thinking about it will help. It’s like a psychic placebo effect. Of course, with ongoing stress and uncertainty, ongoing self-care and brain hacking will be needed. And increasing your optimism bias will take practice before it becomes a regular habit.
Journaling, therapy, or talking informally to a friend, are all tried and true ways of relieving stress. Experts also suggest focusing on things you can control in the here and now: read a book, reorganize a living space, start a new tv show. If you need facts to feel in control, make sure to research and watch the news in small doses - it turns out, our natural tendency to want to bombard ourselves with information in uncertain times isn’t calming at all- just the opposite. Too much information can actually cause frustration and confusion.
Outside of social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing a mask in public, there is little about the covid 19 pandemic that most of us can control, but that doesn’t make us powerless. We can commit to taking care of ourselves and each other and challenging the negative biases that are making this difficult time even harder. We can continue to reach out to our neighbors and community and brainstorm creative solutions to problems. We can ask for help when we need it and offer help when we have it. There is only one way through this- and that’s together. The sand beneath us is still shifting, but with enough support, we don’t have to fall.
Taryn Yates, LMSW, lives in Idaho with her two boys, 3 and 5, and is Grant Manager at the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund.