What can people do to cope during times of uncertainty?

(Originally published on Quora on May 9th, 2013)
This is a timely question for me, and a topic I’ve wrestled with quite a bit in the last couple of years. I think that dealing with uncertainty is primarily an issue of attitude. In Western society we are generally well equipped to rationally evaluate various courses of action with multiple risk factors. We can think about these things on a very high level and come up with a pretty good understanding of most situations.
Still, for many (and certainly for me) uncertainty is accompanied by a deep sense of suffering and frustration. A sense of struggle. Changing my attitude about uncertainty itself, and being more mindful of my feelings at any given moment had done wonders to my ability to deal with and tolerate uncertainty.Many of my ideas about the subject come from my experience with Insight or Vipassana Meditation, and Buddhist psychology in general. However, they do not require training in meditation or interest in Buddhism to apply.

Specifically, here are some attitudes/ideas that helped me tremendously in dealing with times of uncertainty:

  • Remembering that Life is Uncertain – 
    Times of uncertainty make us feel especially vulnerable, but it helps to remember that these times are not really different in kind from the rest of our lives. We all live with limited knowledge of the myriad causes and conditions that shape our futures. Accepting that the future is always, on a fundamantal level, invisible to us will help us feel less sorry for ourselves in the present predicament.
  • Accepting the Limits of Your Power – 
    Look at your particular situation very deeply. Analyze and understand the different causes and conditions, the different risk factors and odds involved. Then, ask yourself these simple questions: What’s within my power to change? What’s within my power to influence? What’s outside of my power to either change or influence? Focusing on the factors you can actually affect, and fully accepting that other elements are completely out of your hands, including often the ultimate outcomes of the situation – will help you stop fighting reality and begin to work with it.
  • Relaxing Control – 
    Even as you intellectually grasp that certain elements are outside of your control, your emotions may still cling to certain outcomes. If you look deeply inside, you’ll find it: almost like a clenched muscle holding on to a desired outcome, a painful, throbbing knot in your mind where peace could be. Through meditation or simple mindfulness it is possible to directly relax that tension. If you find that place of clenching and unclench it, the suffering could stop almost instantly.
  • Finding “You the Observer” – 
    A crucial piece of dealing with uncertainty is having the type of self-image that does not require certainty. It’s possible to become a bit less invested, especially in times of crisis, in the limited self (the one that’s concerned with job offers, relationships, your reputation, your financials), and to identify more strongly with the experiencing self: the “pure consciousness” self that is always experiencing, always curious and open. The “Observer” self will have plenty to observe, plenty to learn, plenty to experience in either scenario. Letting go of your limited self-image will leave you free to grow and change without artificial restrictions.
  • Being Grateful – 
    It’s very easy to be bogged down by self-pity, and focus on the negative. In almost all cases, though, a wider perspective will remind you that there’s much to be grateful for. Think of the great resources you do have, the people who are there for you, and all the knowledge and skills you do posses. This is not some hippy-dippy “positive thinking” exercise. By all means be as realistic as you can about the depth of the problem and the difficulty of the challenge. But then be equally realistic about the advantages you’ve had that others might not have.
  • Enjoying the Present Moment – 
    Once you’ved decided on a course of action, accepted what’s outside of your control, and found the positive in the situation, you can appreciate the present moment. Remember that the future scenarios you’re worried about or wishing for don’t exist yet. What is real is the present moment, which is often peaceful, beautiful, and most importantly: passing. If you don’t let yourself experience and enjoy what you have right now, it really doesn’t matter what happens in the future because you’re likely to not enjoy that either when it comes.

The principles described above are part of many spiritual and religious traditions. As an Atheist, it’s been a long struggle to find and accept them through the veil of myth and mysticism that usually surrounds them. I hope I managed to write clearly and cleanly enough so that the above come through as practicable principles as opposed to more spiritual nonsense!