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UK Psychologist: How to Adapt, Overcome in Times of Uncertainty

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 6, 2022) The ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The persistent problem of inflation. The efforts to continue reducing the spread of COVID-19.

2022 has already brought an element of uncertainty into our daily lives.

The “new normal” still doesn’t feel quite normal, and it’s not necessarily “new.” But we are all trying to find ways to survive and thrive during unprecedented times.

What can you do when uncertainty comes knocking — threatening to disrupt your mental health and wellness?

Matt Southward, a research assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, is researching treatment outcomes for those coping with anxiety, depression and personality disorders. He also works in the Treatment Innovation for Psychological Services Lab.

Below are some useful tips Southward provided for adapting and overcoming.

Check the Facts

The best first step we can take in any uncertain situation is to get whatever facts we can. In the case of COVID-19, that might mean updates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or Steven Stack, M.D., Kentucky’s Commissioner for Public Health. Check with people we know to see if we’ve missed anything since everyone has access to slightly different information. Acknowledge both risks and benefits to each fact, and really ask ourselves: What am I most afraid of happening? If I had to put a number to it, how likely is that to happen? Alternatively, if it did happen, what would I do to cope with it? Posing these questions can clarify our thinking and get worries out of our head, so we have more resources to face our fears.

Face the Fear

One of the most robust principles of psychology is when we face our fears again and again, our fears get weaker. If we’ve checked the facts, and the odds are low, or we can cope okay with a bad outcome, it’s time to face our fear. In the case of COVID-19, that might mean seeing friends inside with masks on. Facing our fears (and reflecting on what actually happened after) over and over again will help us really learn how dangerous something is. The point is not that risks are zero, but that they are manageable and worth the benefits of the activity.

Contribute to Others

One activity that can bring many unexpected benefits is contributing to others. This can range from the small (holding the door, sharing a compliment) to the bigger (volunteering for an important cause, reaching out to a friend in need). Both the pandemic and the push for racial justice have highlighted how hard it is when we’re isolated. On the other hand, this also means we can do so much good for one another. When dealing with uncertainty, it can be surprising how good it can feel to intentionally do something for someone else each day. This act can keep us grounded in our community and centered in ourselves.

Mind the Basics

We can further center ourselves by tending to our basic needs. Reminding ourselves to breathe, even in the middle of another Zoom meeting or when receiving an email that daycare is closed again. Keep to a regular sleep schedule as much as possible — both on weekdays and weekends. This can build in a stable routine, promote higher quality sleep and set us up to face whatever challenges the next day brings. Of course, this isn’t possible every day, so acknowledging we can get through today and try again tonight. Eating the amount our bodies need — not too much, not too little — and paying attention to what energizes us. Maybe that’s a new restaurant opening this year or a favorite comfort food we come back to. Here, we can rely on our attention and wisdom to guide us.

Tend to Our Wisdom

Finally, we all have wisdom, even if uncertainty knocks us off balance. This is wisdom from experience, from our communities, from our morals and ethics, and from ourselves. We may have a hunch that something is dangerous, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. Listen to that voice. Uncertainty can cloud our own wisdom and make us doubt ourselves. It can also inspire thoughtful reflection to fuel our wisdom. This can be a year to take the learning opportunities uncertainty is throwing our way and lean on the wisdom we’ve been building the past two years or more to navigate the uncertainty, seek out growth and inspire others. When uncertainty knocks, invite it in, but allow wisdom to call the shots.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.