A Psychologist's Practice For Embracing Uncertainty (For The Sake Of Your Stress)
I have been studying stress for 30 years. Living in this era of prolonged personal, pandemic, and global stress, has become very challenging. Many of us live with high levels of daily stress, and this can become a habit and last a lifetime. But we don’t have to live that way. That is why I wrote The Stress Prescription. It offers many ways to incorporate new stress management practices into the fabric of our daily lifestyle. I hope you enjoy this excerpt on one of the critical ways to become more resilient to chronic stress—tolerate uncertainty!
Vivian and her adult daughter, Alicia, talk on the phone every day. Though they live across the country from each other—Vivian in San Francisco and Alicia in New York—they are quite close.
Vivian loves that she and her daughter have managed to remain in touch so regularly, despite being so far apart geographically, and she has a real sense of the texture of Alicia's days. But she does notice something. Their chats always seem to end with Alicia venting about how upset she is over something that didn't go as expected that day. To Vivian, it's striking that Alicia seems equally distressed by all of the events she describes—trouble finding parking on an outing, for instance, seems to upset her just as much as a teacher expressing concern that her child may have ADHD.
Alicia often dwells on how well things had been going that day before the incident. She has a favorite phrase she always deploys at the end of these tales of plans gone awry: "It's always something!"
Vivian is baffled by this. "Well, of course it is," she always says. "Why would you expect anything different?"
Vivian finds herself wondering: How did they end up with such different mindsets?
In her mind, this is just how life is; there's no reason to believe anything will go smoothly. As she was growing up, her family moved around a lot, and she learned quickly to adapt and make the best of each new situation. When her own daughter was born, Vivian wanted to make things more stable for her. She even passed up an opportunity or two because it would have meant uprooting her family, and she wanted Alicia to have more consistency than she'd had.
But now she wondered—had she given Alicia the impression that the world could be controlled, predicted, made to fit her plans and expectations? In washing away some of the difficulties she faced, had she failed to set her daughter up for the way life actually unfolded? Vivian expected detours and construction; Alicia expected straight routes, green lights, and smooth sailing.
Vivian is a friend—not a study participant. I've never pulled her into the lab to draw her blood, review her stress surveys, or peer into her cells. But if I did, and if I compared them with her daughter's, I wonder what I would see. It's possible that as Vivian and Alicia move along through the years, their calendar age staying stable at 32 years apart, their biological age is actually closing the gap. Vivian, who rolls with the kicks and punches her days throw at her, doesn't seem to mount a stress response when faced with an unexpected detour.
Alicia has a completely different physiological response to that road-closed sign. Her sympathetic nervous system whooshes into action, ready to fight this threat. And if that's happening a lot—all day, every day—that's not good.
When things go awry, we tend to react with a stress response. In Buddhism, this is thought of as the second arrow problem: Anytime something bad happens, it's like we're being hit by two arrows. The first arrow is the painful thing that happened; the second is our reaction to that bad thing. In other words, problems (the first arrow) are inevitable, but suffering (the second arrow) is optional. The events will happen. The first arrows fall on everyone. But if we suffer about the suffering, we are throwing a second arrow at ourselves, and it's always a double hitter.
For Alicia, this was in part because of a "violation of expectations." Alicia thought, Why me? Vivian had a different response: Why not me?
A practice for embracing uncertainty and openness.
Today we practice relaxing into moments of uncertainty instead of tensing up against them. Uncertainty often shows up as embodied stress, which is when we turn stress and negative emotions into feelings, sensations, and tension in the body. Thankfully, our physical sensations can also shape our emotions; by letting go of tensions in our bodies, we can change our emotional state.
To begin, find a place to sit if you aren't sitting already. Ideally, this is someplace quiet and comfortable, but you can do this anywhere, even on the subway or bus, or at your desk at work. (If you can, put earbuds in to block out distractions or listen to calming music.) Next, follow the steps below:
Tune in to your body.
Close your eyes. Ground yourself: Take three slow breaths, all the way down into your belly. Briefly, notice the physical sensations you're experiencing right now: the feeling of the chair you're sitting on, the temperature of the room.
Scan for embodied stress.
For about 60 seconds, slowly scan your body with the flashlight of your attention, starting at the top of your head and gradually moving down to your toes. Stress lives in the body, but we all carry it in different places. Notice where you're holding tension—neck, shoulders, lower back? Release it. If your hands are clenched, open them. If your shoulders are tensed, roll them back. Breathe into any remaining tight or heavy spots—that's where you're holding uncertainty.
Now, ask yourself the following questions.
- What's on your mind right now, as you think about the day ahead, the week ahead, or the future in general?
- What are you feeling most uncertain about?
- What expectations are you holding about how things will go?
Let go of expectations.
Notice strong attachments to how you think things should go, and see them for what they are: one possible outcome, not a sure thing. Mentally wipe clean the whiteboard of the day or week ahead. Remind yourself that anything can happen, including positive unexpected things. Uncertainty is welcome. Now you've named it, smile at it; breathe into it. That's the unknown, the unpredictable, the mystery that will unfold with time.
And finally, lean back.
Lean back physically in your chair. When you are more reclined in your seat, you're more receptive, relaxed, and open to what's coming. Recline comfortably and match your mental stance to the ease of your body's posture. Let experience unfold and come to you, moment by moment, savoring the certainty of this moment. In this moment, you are safe. You can relax.
Adapted from an excerpt from THE STRESS PRESCRIPTION by Elissa Epel, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elissa Epel.
Elissa Epel, Ph.D. is a professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. She is an internationally renowned health psychologist who has conducted pioneering research into how stress impacts our health. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Telomere Effect. The Stress Prescription is her latest book.