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6 steps to help you deal with the stress of uncertainty

Dr. Tamara Hodges
Licensed Psychologist
Senior Lecturer, Baylor University
Department of Educational Psychology

When life seems upside down, all routines have been disrupted, and you don’t know how to calm the crazy, what do you do?  Many of us spend our energy trying to find a reason for all of the uncertainty that 2020 handed us, and that energy spent leaves us feeling exhausted and unstable. Nevertheless, it is nearly impossible to know a specific reason for something like a pandemic.  Therefore, perhaps we can begin to spend our energy focusing on a few basic strategies to help create a much-needed sense of control. Given that it is a new year, and we often use this time to create new year’s resolutions, take a moment to read a few points that might help provide a sense of control in a world that seems so out of control.  It is important to start with small, manageable steps.

As a psychologist, I am aware that we all feel the stress of uncertainty. I recently read an excellent article titled, Coping with Change, which focuses on taking control of the stress of uncertainty. The author, Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, identifies six ways that educators can cope during these challenging times. The following six steps are divided into a three blog post series.

  1. Re-frame your personal narrative.

“The linear life is dead,” says Bruce Feiler, author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age (Penguin Press, 2020). His data show that people go through three to five “life-quakes,” massive life changes with aftershocks that can last up to five years or more. Everyone hits bumps in the road, he explained to me, but this is the first time the entire planet is experiencing a life-quake simultaneously.

Given the current pandemic, it’s easy to sink into pessimism, question others’ judgment, or focus on what we’ve lost. However, it’s far more productive to alter our mindset and recognize that peaks can’t exist without valleys. When we let go of preconceived ideas about what life should look like, we have an easier time self-regulating our emotions.

Rewrite the narrative, casting yourself as the hero, as someone who discovers their strength because of the pandemic. As you frame your story internally, focus on the skills you’re acquiring, such as flexibility and self-compassion. Boosting resilience may represent the upside to the pandemic, Feiler points out. “I believe, as scary and sad as it is, that we’re going to form a lot of calluses and forge a lot of transition-management skills.” 

  1. Prune and preserve relationships.

In times of stress, we have fewer reserves. Uncertainty feeds anxiety, fear, and anger, all emotions that hinder the ability to read social cues and adopt someone else’s perspective. We are also more susceptible to others’ negativity. To sustain stamina, curate your social network. Limit interactions with friends and colleagues who drain or deplete you and protect relationships with the people you’ve come to trust and who are engaged in this crisis with you.

This can be challenging in times of stress when people are not at their peak and may be more easily provoked. Following a series of negative interactions with frustrated parents, for example, a trusted administrator may exhibit less patience with a teacher. To limit misunderstandings, know your own triggers, whether that’s ruminating about an outcome you can’t alter, spending hours with someone who complains incessantly, skipping your morning run, or “doom-scrolling” through grim news-feeds.

Before you react with a strong emotion, take a deep breath and consider whether or not you’re likely to elicit the desired outcome. Lashing out in anger or placing blame tends to be divisive and counterproductive. As the pandemic has illustrated, we’re stronger when we work together.

“I hope we all can show a little grace and resist the inclination to be swept up in alarm,” notes Sirgo. As one of the officials leading the design and recovery work in her school district, as well as a working parent, she knows that everyone is experiencing angst and frustration. “When I think about extending grace, the following things come to mind,” she told me. We must seek to understand and ask questions before reaching conclusions:

  1. Assume positive intention and the supposition that people are trying their best to make things work;
  2. Use language and messages, particularly in email, to communicate in ways that are clear and kind; and
  3. Be deliberate about recognizing our own stress and anxiety, not placing on others our own frustration and short-tempered reactions.

To Be Continued ….

“Many of us spend our energy trying to find a reason for all of the uncertainty that 2020 handed us, and that energy spent leaves us feeling exhausted and unstable.”

What are the key points that you want to implement from Part One?

* Do a self-check on your internal dialogue.

* Stop yourself from dwelling on any negative events during this “life-quake.”

* Notice all the ways you have grown.

* Surround yourself with emotionally healthy people.

* Extend kindness to others.


Tamara Hodges

Dr. Tamara Hodges of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has a background in psychology and education. She received her doctorate from Baylor University in Educational Psychology and went on to pursue a license to practice as a psychologist. She has owned her psychology practice, consulted with many schools in Central Texas, given more than 150 presentations as a public speaker, and practiced eight years as a psychologist in private practice. For the past eleven years, she has been teaching at Baylor in the School Psychology Program.

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