How to deal with uncertainty

Let’s be real: so much of what happens in life is outside of our control. While we all do our best to juggle everything that we have going on, like work, socialising, study and finances, these things are often impacted by bigger forces that we can’t change. Larger social issues like poor rental markets, job instability or cultural issues, can cause a lot of uncertainty, which can feel really tough to cope with.

However, there’s a positive side to dealing with uncertainty: it can make you more resilient! The following tips will help you to build your resilience so that the next time your plans change unexpectedly, you’ll know how to cope.

Hold on to your 'stability rocks'


A ‘stability rock’ is a process or practice that helps to ‘ground’ you when it feels like things are spinning out of control. ‘Stability rocks’, like your personal routines and rituals, are a reminder that there are some things that are within your control. They become really important when some parts of your life are disrupted.

Some examples of ‘stability rocks’ could be:

  • waking up at the same time every day

  • eating regular meals

  • going to bed at the same time

  • practising a cultural activity every afternoon

  • doing some form of exercise every morning

  • reaching out to a friend each day.

Accept that it’s normal to feel stressed sometimes


It’s normal to feel stressed from time to time, especially when you’re juggling a lot. Add in some big stressors like losing a job, struggling to find a place to live or breaking up with a partner and it’s natural to feel pretty crappy. Along with feeling disappointed, you’ll probably also have a lot of ‘life admin’ to manage, which can be exhausting.

As hard as things are, it can be comforting to know that it’s okay to feel stressed out sometimes. Have a vent to your mates about how you’re feeling; you may be surprised at how many of them can relate to what you’re going through.

Remember: you are not your thoughts

When you’re feeling anxious, tell yourself it’s a normal part of being human. It’s important to understand that we are not our thoughts. Thoughts may come into your head for a whole bunch of reasons. By accepting that they aren’t facts, you remove some of their power to upset you.

Try writing down the words that are going through your head when you’re next in a tough situation. Then read them back as if someone else had written them. This can help you to realise that your thoughts aren’t you, and to accept them for what they are: just thoughts.

Practise tolerating uncertainty


Predictability helps people to feel they are in control, and reassures them that their lives are settled and nothing bad will happen. On the other hand, having to deal with the unknown can make people anxious. Get a handle on anxiety by practising tolerating uncertainty. You can start by doing small things differently, such as experimenting with cooking a meal without triple-checking the recipe, or picking a random Netflix show to watch without knowing anything about it.

Write down how these behaviours make you feel (before and after doing them). One thing we don’t like about uncertainty is that, if we allow it into our life, sometimes things can go wrong.

To use the example of experimenting with cooking, perhaps the meal tastes pretty bad. Write down the outcome and then write down what you did to cope. For example, did you still eat the meal, or did you make something else? Maybe you sent a photo of it to a friend with a joke around how you nailed it.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did things turn out okay even though I wasn’t 100 per cent certain they would?

  • If things didn't turn out okay, what happened?

  • What did I do to cope with the negative outcome?

  • Was I able to handle the negative outcome?

  • What does this tell me about my ability to cope with negative outcomes in the future?

The idea is to learn that even if things don’t go as planned, you can still deal with them.

Draw on skills you've used before


It’s very likely you’ve dealt with uncertainty before, and you can do it again.

Reflect on what skills you’ve used in the past to cope with uncertainty, or ask someone who knows you well to suggest some of these. Write a list of them so that you have a little toolbox to refer to whenever you’re getting anxious.

Your skills could include:

Play to your strengths

Working out what our strengths are, and then playing to them, can give us more confidence in times of uncertainty. Take this free VIA Character Strengths quiz and then have a think about what you can do to act on those strengths. For example, if you’re creative, you could spend 30 minutes each day doing something in that area, such as drawing, playing an instrument or experimenting with a new recipe. If a value is ‘humanity’, you could practise acting compassionately and do small, unexpected things for others like checking in on a neighbour or sending a friend a link to a song you think they’d like.

Find ways to talk to others

When you’re going through a tough time, one of the best and most effective things you can do to feel better is to talk with someone. You can meet up in person, jump on a call or even just send a quick text asking to chat. When you talk to a trusted friend, family member or health professional, tell them what’s stressing you out and why. They may not have all the answers, but just sharing what you’re going through can help get it out of your head and make it feel less scary.

Watch our video on why talking helps, learn how to find your trusted person when you need support, and read these 5 steps to talking to someone you trust.

Stay up to date with the facts


Everyone has an opinion about big social issues – from the media and politicians, to your mum and dad. This can sometimes mean that unreliable information gets spread around. When a big issue is directly impacting your life, it’s important to know the facts.

Keeping up to date with objective sources of information can provide some certainty about what’s happening. Choosing media sources wisely means that you’re less likely to get overwhelmed with the constant coverage and it will be easier to stay grounded.

If you feel overwhelmed, seek support

Sometimes things can get overwhelming, even if you’ve been practising these skills. Phone and online services are a great option when you want to speak to someone quickly and easily. Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) can be accessed for phone and online counselling, with Lifeline phone counsellors on call from 7 pm to midnight, and Kids Helpline available 24/7. eHeadspace also offers free online and telephone support and counselling. 13YARN (13 92 76) provides 24/7 phone access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Crisis Supporters.

Consider seeing your GP or a mental health professional for extra help. Speaking with a professional may relieve some of your stress, and they may be able to help connect you with other services or provide resources that can help in your unique situation.

If you want to vent or connect with others who can relate, head over to the ReachOut Online Community where you can share your story with other young people.

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