Peak Mind Pro: Thriving Through Uncertainty

In order to be your best self, you must be able to handle uncertainty. To describe these situations we use the acronym “VUCA”: 

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

Situations and experiences that can be explained by one or more of these characteristics are particularly tough for us to handle. And if you think about it, is there a better word to describe the experience we’ve all been living through the last 18 months? (Seriously, if you can think of one, hit reply and tell us!) There’s simply a lot of uncertainty facing us at every turn.

VUCA situations are particularly tough for us because of our mind’s natural tendency to seek out predictability, familiarity, certainty, and stability. Our mind’s natural survival instinct sees a predictable, unchanging environment as one that is safe. It’s known. It’s one where we can let our guard down. We feel calm, confident, and at ease in predictable, familiar situations.

Let’s unpack that for a second. Our mind’s natural tendency is to feel at ease in predictable, unchanging circumstances. This is our comfort zone. So naturally, when things tip in the “VUCA direction,” we feel it, and it doesn’t feel good. It’s hard to be your best self when your mind doesn’t feel at ease. A lack of certainty compounds this.

So, is it really surprising that anxiety and depression have risen exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic?

We’ve heard from countless organizations over the last couple of months, and there is one common theme: people are feeling the stress and pressure of the ongoing VUCA situation we’ve all been living in. 

But, people still have jobs to do and goals to achieve. Our businesses and organizations still depend on our teams in order to move forward, even during challenging times.

So, what can you do to support your team so they can show up as their best, even in the face of adversity?

Monthly Tip

This month’s tip is to take a page out of the book of a true high performer. Michael Phelps is the most decorated olympian in history. He won 28 medals (23 gold), and has been lauded as the “greatest of all time.”

What contributed to that level of performance?

Sure, you can point to his natural physical ability to account for some of it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

When you dig into Phelps’ training regimen, you see a series of rituals, like his race-day ritual above. These rituals are carefully crafted to put Phelps in a state of mind that allows him to show up and perform at his best. 

He primes his best self, and your employees can do the same. By priming our best self, we put ourselves in the mindset that allows us to handle more uncertainty. The repetitiveness and familiarity of a ritual like a race-day routine helps calm our mind during VUCA times.

Ask your employees to answer the following questions:

  1. When was a time that I was at my best? (Describe it in detail)
  2. How did I feel? (Be specific! Were you confident, calm, assertive, engaged, etc)
  3. What activities tend to elicit or detract from those feelings?

 For example:

  1. I was at my best when I reached my set goals while working on a big initiative last quarter.
  2. I felt in control and in a state of flow.
  3. My work was planned out – I knew when to do what. I had uninterrupted time.

Your employees can use the answers to these questions to craft their own “race-day routine” to prime themselves to show up closer to their best self each day. Not only does this further personal development, but it can trickle into other areas of your life. In this example, this employee could spend some time each week to plan out their work. They could consider blocking work time on their calendar to ensure adequate time to focus. 

By priming our best selves, we put ourselves in the best possible position to weather the inevitable challenges that a VUCA situation can throw at us.

Ready to help your team build psychological strength?

Ready to support your team to help them manage stress and uncertainty and perform at their peak? Fill out a quick form, and we’ll be in touch about how your organization can begin building psychological strength.

“The goal is not to be better than the other person, but your previous self.”
– Dalai Lama

The Challenges of Facing Uncertainty

As an anxiety specialist, I spend a lot of my time helping people learn to handle facing uncertainty. OCD, for example, is perhaps best understood as an allergy to uncertainty that manifests in a number of ways: will I get sick (I need to know for sure this safe)? What if something bad happens to me or my loved ones (I need to know for sure it’s going to be ok)? What if I make a huge mistake (I need to know for sure it’s all going to work out)? 

Intolerance of Uncertainty

Every anxiety disorder essentially boils down to some intolerance of uncertainty. But it’s so much broader than that. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you’re likely impacted by levels of uncertainty in some way. Our brains don’t like it, and we often have a built in adverse reaction to it.

The Assumptions We Make

How many times have we all heard over the past 18 months something along the lines of “These are uncertain times”? They are, of course, uncertain times. To be fair, though, times have always been uncertain. We just weren’t necessarily aware of it. The pandemic slapped us in the face with uncertainty – we can no longer take for granted that life is going to plug along the way it always has or the way we expect it to. A lot of our assumptions were shaken.

This foundation shaking has always happened, just typically on a more unique, individualized basis. Someone gets a life altering medical diagnosis. Someone is laid off. Or moves. Or an important relationship dissolves. We’ve all had periods of transition, periods of uncertainty in which our vision of the future becomes blurry.

Outside of those obvious, in your face moments, we often overlook uncertainty, assuming certainty without an actual guarantee of it. For example, how much are you worried about the plane barreling toward you right now about to crash into you as you read this? Are you running for cover? Seeking shelter? I doubt it.

Do you know for certain, 100% without a shadow of doubt, that a plane is not barreling toward you? No. Could it happen? Sure, theoretically. But, in the face of little evidence to the contrary, little sign of danger, we assume certainty and, therefore, safety. We operate as though the plane crash absolutely cannot and will not happen.

And that’s adaptive. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t assume certainty in some instances. Would you still go to work and save for retirement if you weren’t assuming you’d be around to see it? Would you still invest in your children if you weren’t assuming they’ll grow into healthy adults? Would you still eat kale if you weren’t taking care of your body with the hope of health and longevity? (No. Who eats kale for the enjoyment of it?!). The point being that we make a lot of assumptions about the continuity of things as they are. 

That’s ok. In fact, it’s quite helpful.

But, the past 18 months have made us keenly aware that the future is not certain. Things can change abruptly. Our foundations have been shaken, and uncertainty is actually quite hard for us.

Our Brains Hate Uncertainty

Our brains are designed to keep us alive. When things are familiar and predictable, our brains can relax a bit. We’re safe. As soon as we enter into uncharted territory – something new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or – you got it – uncertain, our threat detection system goes into high alert. We have a fight or flight response. We don’t know what to expect. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. We might not be safe.

Our brains begin to scan, looking for every potential danger or thing that could wrong, and we experience that as anxiety or unease. Our brains are constantly looking for worst case scenarios to save us from. Our brains start striving toward certainty and safety again. Remember, that’s their number one job. This striving comes out in all kinds of ways, all centering on getting some sense of control. For example, we may plan, figure out, avoid, ruminate, try to control others, analyze, and any number of strategies ultimately aimed at getting rid of the uncertainty, getting us back to familiar, predictable ground. We want a sense of control, and we want a guarantee of safety. While it’s natural, the problem is that sometimes there isn’t a way to resolve the uncertainty, to get that guaranteed outcome that we’re looking for, and all of those efforts actually exhaust us or stress us out further. The goal, then, is to learn to tolerate uncertainty. To learn to be ok with not knowing and, hopefully, trust that we’ll be able to handle whatever might arise.

Tolerating Uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty is like training a muscle that can be developed (think risk tolerance or expanding your comfort zone, both similar concepts here). One step you can take is to start to get clear about what is and isn’t knowable so that you can stop spinning your wheels seeking certainty where it’s not possible to get any. Ask yourself these key questions to determine if it’s worth your time and effort:

  • Is this knowable?
  • Is this knowable by me?
  • Is this knowable by me right now?

If the answer is yes, yes, yes, by all means, continue to spend the time analyzing, thinking about, figuring out, and controlling. You can find the answers you’re looking for, then act accordingly.

If, however, the answer to any one of them is no, you’re better off working on accepting the uncertainty and putting your time and effort into other things that you actually can control.

When will COVID really be over? 

I don’t think that’s knowable in general, certainly not by me right now. Rather than analyzing every bit of news (or noise – opinions and predictions masquerading as facts), I’ll focus on thriving through uncertainty.

What if my business venture (kids, relationships, fitness efforts, etc., etc.,) doesn’t succeed?

The future isn’t knowable. I can feel overwhelmed worrying about success, or I can spend my time working on strategies and steps that improve performance and move my business forward.

Notice the places where you find yourself saying (or thinking) “I just need to know” or worrying about how things will turn out or struggling with the unpredictability. Ask yourself those key questions. Then focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Psychological Strength Is Key

When I look back over periods in my life that have felt very uncertain or were characterized by big transitions, I see how psychological strength is so helpful in navigating those times. These skills are invaluable in being able to thrive through adversity and deal with challenges. Fortunately, psychological strength can be developed. Dr. April and I will be diving much deeper into uncertainty and, more importantly, how to thrive through it, in a live virtual workshop on Wednesday (October 2021). If you want to take charge of your life and be more proactive in shaping how life feels for you, we’d love to have you join us. Tickets are only $19 (or free for Ascend members).

 “If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.”
— Eckhart Tolle