Learning to deal with uncertainty

Headshot of Dr Loretta Poerio

Dr Loretta Poerio
Mental Health Adviser
Department of Veterans’ Affairs

21 April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent bushfires have been a sobering beginning to 2020. My deepest sympathies to those who have been touched by either of these events.

Concern regarding our health and wellbeing often shake our sense of predictability, a core need for us to feel safe and able to have agency in the world. Worrying about the safety of our family, our home, our business and our community is understandable. These worries can overwhelm us at times, and engender feelings of helplessness, making us vulnerable to poor mental health. With some reflection, high quality information, and a range of tools, that sense of being overwhelmed can be managed so that we are able to cope with our distress, problem-solve and make sound decisions that restore a sense of predictability.

In the first instance, it is important to be prepared for dealing with intense feelings. Our knowledge of disasters such as the bushfires indicates that disillusionment often follows, and this can lead to much soul-searching, anger and anxiety about the future, as well as depression. The level of distress can be mild and short-lived through to severe and chronic. Early detection and intervention can make all the difference. Remember, if your worry becomes chronic and affects your ability to undertake everyday activities, then professional assistance is required, with a visit to the GP a good place to start.1

Spending time building strategies for dealing with psychological distress can also mean you are better prepared physically, with reduced levels of worry and anxiety, better coping skills and more insight into what to look for in yourself and others. Understanding how you react to stress, and how others in your immediate environment react to stress, can mean you can nip symptoms in the bud before a spiral of avoiding anything upsetting settles in. For example, sitting around in a pub for hours drinking can become a way of distracting us from distressing emotions, but in the end, this strategy just perpetuates the stressful situation you are trying to avoid, which often makes the situation worse.

A pro-active problem-solving approach provides options for action by breaking down seemingly overwhelming problems into manageable and logical steps.

The GROW model2 is a simple and easy to use problem-solving tool. It has four steps:

  • define the goal
  • examine the reality of the situation
  • brainstorm the possible options
  • establish the will/way forward.

Good problem-solving can occur at the individual and group level. It can bring a sense of control, which can often be diminished or absent after a disaster. The need for routine, order, a sense of purpose and predictability can be met, at least in part, by pro-active problem solving. It helps to ground us in the here-and-now. It can be used across a range of situations and helps distinguish what you can influence from what you can’t. The message here is don’t waste your time and emotional energy on things you can’t change!

Problem-solving is not just helpful for dealing with practical issues; it can also assist in dealing with the more existential concerns that can arise. The process of defining your goal provides an opportunity to reflect on what matters in life — where you want to focus your energy. Research is showing us that it is the process of pursuing higher-order flexible goal-setting that facilitates a sense of meaning, purpose and wellbeing, and can reduce anxiety. Conscious self-reflection is critical in this process, and in tracking progress towards your chosen goal.

Coming to terms with the aftermath of a disaster requires a long-term view. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Take one step at a time, be flexible and have a starting point, no matter how small. This will make that next step seem much more doable, and provide a sense of hope. Being able to anchor ourselves in the moment, breathe, and ask ourselves, ‘What can I do here? / What is the issue?’ and having a model to support clear decision-making is a definite for our tool bag this challenging year.

1 Assistance is available through Open Arms, or through a referral to an allied mental health professional via your GP if you have a DVA White Card or Gold Card. Any kind of White Card entitles you to unlimited mental health care for life through Non-Liability Health Care (NLHC), whether or not your mental illness is related to service.

2 The model was originally developed in the 1980s by business coaches Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore.