The everchanging nature of our society has left a large majority of us with mental whiplash. All areas of our lives have been affected one way or another – whether it be from the likes of the pandemic, the rising cost of living or even the gradual yet worsening impacts of climate change. Just listing these events made me feel anxious – so I’m sure those reading along feel a similar way. The constant state of flux has increased these anxious feelings around the uncertainty we face ten-fold. Thankfully, medical professionals are taking notice of the mental and physical toll these large-scale anxieties have on the greater population and are striving to implement ways to reduce the consequences.
Dr Toni Lindsay is once such professional who is using her real-life experience in the fields of psychology and long-term patient care to tackle the symptoms of uncertainty. Her work with cancer and palliative care patients has offered her a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges of managing instability in all areas of life and wellbeing. Her latest publication The Certainty Myth acts as a lifeboat full of sound anecdotal advice and clinical expertise that navigates the reader through these uncertain times. Dr Lindsay has identified through her professional experiences that anxiety is usually the first symptom of uncertainty, but it can be transformed into a signpost directing us to the root of the problem or as Dr Lindsay calls it “a broken bone somewhere in the midst”. She provides tips and tricks into managing your anxiety around uncertainty – including on how to remain present and grounded – a skill that is easily practiced and immediately beneficial. Read on to find an excerpt, including an easy exercise you can do anywhere, that may help re-focus your attention to the now help you deal with uncertainty in the future.
Excerpt: Dr Lindsay on staying in the present
Uncertainty and anxiety live in the future. Our brains have an incredible capacity to spin and come up with a million possible scenarios about what the future will hold. Almost never are they right. My patients tell me that of all the things they have worried about in their whole lives, the thing that actually happened was the one they never saw coming. It wasn’t on their radar. And they can understand the logic that they probably won’t be able to worry about stuff that will happen in the future, either.
However, this doesn’t stop them worrying, even if they know it is unhelpful. Worrying and ruminating is how our brain does its job. So, we aren’t going to turn off that function.
But right here and right now, the moment we are in is what is important. If we are connected to the present, to what is happening right now, uncertainty and anxiety don’t exist. The present is when we have the most certainty; this doesn’t remove uncertainty about the future, but in the moment at least, there is more that you can grasp onto.
There is a huge benefit to being in the present — this is where we live. Unfortunately, the nature of our world is that we spend lots of time projecting into the future or focusing on what might happen next. Our time is limited, and the more we are caught in the future, the more moments we miss. There are a million things happening around us at any one time, but we can easily be blind to them because we aren’t really looking.
I have met lots of people who are caught up in worrying about what is going to happen in the future: for example, what will happen to their children if they die? It’s natural for people to worry about such issues — these are huge aspects of people’s lives — but most people in this situation notice that getting caught up in the worry means they actually miss out on time and moments with their kids right now.
It’s almost impossible for us to stay connected with the present at every moment of every day; kids can often do it, animals do it, but for adults our brain pulls us out of it almost constantly. But even little check-ins will help to give you a break away from being pulled into uncertainty and anxious thoughts.
And the more often you connect with the present — it might be for 5, 10 or 20-second breaks — the more your brain recognizes that you can choose whether to engage with the uncertainty and anxiety. And the more you can be present in the here and now.
Exercise: Simple Breathing Awareness
"These are exercises that bring your attention to your breath. One of the ones I have found most helpful for people is to do a 6-second breathing cycle: gently breathe in for 3 seconds, then gently breathe out for 3 seconds. You can do this ten times, which will take about a minute. The counting helps keep you engaged in the process and helps your mind to not wander and stay present with the exercise.
Another activity that works quite well is breathing in as deep as you can for 5 seconds and then breathing out as much as you can for 5 seconds. This might feel a bit uncomfortable as you notice the feeling of filling and emptying your lungs, but many of my patients find it helpful."
About the Author
Dr. Toni Lindsay is a Clinical Psychologist who has been working with both adults and adolescents for over 10 years. She works at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and teaches at the University of Melbourne (Adolescent Medicine) and the University of Sydney Nursing School. She is an approved supervisor and works predominately from an Acceptance and Commitment therapy framework. Dr. Lindsay’s experience working clinically (primarily in cancer and palliative care) gives her a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges of managing uncertainty.