Robert Pimm mask

Uncertainty: 4 ways to cope

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Uncertainty: how to cope. Many of us face uncertainty around a personal crisis, or a wider crisis such as COVID-19. Practice and a bit of structure can help us to cope.

‘Are you refusing to shake hands?’ When we met on 4 March 2020, my friend shook his head.  ‘This whole coronavirus thing is overblown.’

4 March 2020: uncertainty roars in

On 4 March 2020, at the outset of coronavirus, I lived in Vienna. Austria had only a dozen new cases of coronavirus per day, but neighbouring Italy was suffering hundreds.  It would be another twelve days before the Austrian government implemented one of the earliest, and strictest, lockdowns in Europe to try and control the pandemic.

Neither my friend nor I really knew what was happening.  We both took information from whatever sources we could. We came to different conclusions on how to cope with the uncertainty we faced.

Coping with uncertainty: Leigh Turner in a face mask

Wearing an obligatory facemask in the Vienna metro

Twelve weeks later I met my friend again.  In between, Austria had had around 16,500 known coronavirus cases and 668 deaths.  He grinned.  ‘Are you still refusing to shake hands?’ he said.  It was as if nothing had changed.

Uncertainty: some things we didn’t know

The unprecedented nature of the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic generated uncertainty.  Here are some things we didn’t know:

  • would a vaccine be developed?  If so, when?
  • when would will we be able to fly again?
  • would things ever “get back to normal”?
  • did catching the virus make you immune?  If so, to what extent and for how long?
  • how likely were you to catch the virus?
  • if you caught the virus, how ill would you be?
  • what would the economic impact of the virus be?  How would this affect you?
  • if we reduced social distancing and lived more or less as before, would we face a second peak?
  • what were the risks of reopening schools/pubs/theatres/sporting venues?
  • why did some countries seem to suffer more than others?
  • how should you personally adjust your behaviour?

Looking back on this list a year or two later is a reminder of how little we knew.

We are better off than Sandra Bullock

Making decisions in such strange circumstances is difficult.  But looking on the bright side, wasn’t as if leaving your home would almost certainly result in your death, as in the creepy Sandra Bullock movie Birdbox.

The situation facing people in “Birdbox” is worse than coronavirus

But coronavirus was like the situation in Birdbox in that it reminded us that every single moment of every single day, with or without coronavirus, we are making decisions about keeping ourselves safe, in the face of uncertainty about the future. That is normality for humankind.

Coping with uncertainty: four paths

Here are four ways to help you coping with uncertainty:

(i) accept that you can’t control everything.  You never could before, and you got this far, right?

(ii) consider good outcomes.  We all tend to worry about what could go wrong.  Try envisioning some good scenarios.

(iii) think actively about happiness, as in my blog How to be happy: 11 simple tools.

(iv) in particular, keep things in perspective.  Imagine what your grandparents or their grandparents, or a 14th century peasant, would have thought about the way you are living now.

Coping with uncertainty: study the master

Her Majesty the Queen did much of this in her famous 2020 coronavirus speech.  She talked about “a time of disruption in the life of our country… a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all” – accepting that we can’t control everything, as at (i) above.  “I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she says – keeping things in perspective, (iv) above.  She does the same when she refers back to her own broadcast in 1940, when the UK was facing military catastrophe.  Then she presents a good scenario – (ii) above: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.  We will be with our friends again and will be with our families again.  We will meet again.”

The broadcast was a splendid lesson in dealing with uncertainty.

What to do next

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy these other entertaining, cheering or thought-provoking blogs:

– “Vintage Season” – what if now was the best era in human history?

Middlemarch: 25 epigrams

Coronavirus Vienna (with pictures)

Ten reasons to like Turkey

Lesotho: ten reasons to like this beautiful country

Ten reasons to like Austria

Enjoy your browse.


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