Navigating Uncertainty

Illustration of parents and a young child sitting on the edge of a diving board with feet in the water.

By Lynn Gerwig Lyons ’87
Illustration by Carmen Segovia

How to develop malleability and flexibility.

As a specialist in anxious families, the days of Covid-19 have been busy for me. People want to know how best to manage fear, loss and stress, how to parent to mitigate long-term damage and how to navigate ongoing uncertainty. Early in the pandemic, I realized that I’m saying now what I’ve been saying for years: Life is uncertain, and that fact can create anxiety. But the way we handle that during a pandemic does not require the development of unique emotional skills.

Let me be clear: This feels different. The content is new, and the urgency is higher, but the work of emotionally equipping our young people to move into an uncertain future is the same. It’s about learning how to step into—rather than away from—the emotional and circumstantial curves life throws us.

Anxiety seeks certainty and comfort. It wants to know everything and feel comfortable before moving forward. Anxious people imagine catastrophic outcomes and seek reassurance to try to forestall them. They avoid risks. But uncertainty is unavoidable, and so the most important skill I help my patients develop is the ability to tolerate it.

The first step involves managing emotions. Many of us try to tamp them down. But the key is to feel them and respond in healthy ways. I tell people all the time: You should feel anxious, sad and disappointed right now. The question is, can you articulate these emotions? Are you allowing space for others to tell you what they’re feeling? We learn how to manage our emotions when we’re given the opportunity to get through them. Instead of jumping in to try to solve, rationalize or minimize what others are feeling, we should use two words: “Of course.” Of course you feel worried. It would be weird if you didn’t.

Worry can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which is fed by the stance that nothing will change. But things are always in flux, even now. We don’t know exactly what will happen next, but we never do, really. The knowledge that emotions, circumstances and relationships are ever-changing is critical to healing and growth. So the question becomes: How will you adjust? Malleability and flexibility are the opposite of the “stuck” feeling of hopelessness that anxiety and depression depend upon.

In my darkest moments, I become overwhelmed by the machinations of a culture I see as being at odds with the well-being of our young people. I’m not sure how Covid-19 will affect that. But one little guy I treated recently saw me on the news talking about the need to navigate uncertainty, manage emotions and remain flexible. He turned to his mother and said, “We’ll be OK, Mom. We already learned all this stuff.” It’s doable, he reminds me, so I’ll keep at it.

Portrait of Lynn Lyons

Lynn Gerwig Lyons ’87 is a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders in children and families and is the author of several books on anxiety.

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