8 Ways to Cope With Uncertainty During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The new coronavirus has pressed pause on life as we know it, and we simply don't know what comes next. But mental health experts have tips for how to keep moving forward in the face of the unknown.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

When Serena So, 36, made the big decision to quit her food-and-beverage operations job in January to travel for the first few months of 2020, she had few worries about landing a new position when she returned to her home in Miami. But she didn’t know what was coming. None of us did. Because how could we have predicted a global pandemic?

After two months of traveling and recuperating, So began her job hunt as planned—she had only saved up enough money to cover her time off, and she was ready to get back to work. But as hotels, restaurants, and bars began closing their doors or modifying their services in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, So ‘s potential job prospects dwindled, leaving her without an income and health insurance at what she feels is a crucial time to have it. Meanwhile, she had student loan and car payments to make, rent to pay, and her parents to help support.

“I'm unable to find a job, and the possibility of getting one in the near future seems unlikely,” So says. “Though I'd like to remain cautiously optimistic about the future, I would be lying if I said I wasn't deeply concerned.”

In just a few short weeks, the futures many had carefully planned, expected, or imagined crumpled under the weight of COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus, which can lead to severe complications and even death in some cases. To help slow the spread of the virus, federal and state officials first encouraged, then ordered people to “flatten the curve” by staying home from work and school and social distancing from everyone around us. Our lives have been put not just on hold, but forever altered in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

With a future so uncertain, millions of Americans like So are faced with difficult questions—and an onslaught of worries. How do you stay positive when there is no clear end to this global crisis in sight?

“In contrast to a lot of stressors that exist, one of the things that is really a core-defining feature to this [pandemic] is the uncertainty,” explains Itai Danovich, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “The uncertainty is a significant source of stress for everybody because the anchors that help people have a sense of control are all dislodged right now.”

People aren’t sure to what degree their own families will be impacted, he says, and how long that impact will last—a few months? A year? Multiple years? When will those who are unemployed be able to find or return to work? What will happen to their savings? And when will they be able to leave the house and visit friends and family again, without the fear of infection?

“These are stressors to all the things we care about, our ability to have safety, to provide for our basic needs, to care for ourselves and for our loved ones, and to manage all the conditions and concerns that we have,” he says. It feels like a lot because it is a lot.

But even in the face of this mega stressor, there are ways to keep moving forward, day by day. And a big part of that is learning to deal with—and ultimately, trying to accept—this unprecedented level of uncertainty in our lives. Here are some tips from mental health professionals for how to work toward that goal.

1. Focus on What You Can Control

The major key to managing uncertainty? Look at what you do have the power to change, says Amanda White, L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor and owner of the Therapy for Women Center in Philadelphia.

White has an exercise she does with her clients when life feels chaotic—which for many of us, is right now, to the nth degree. Want to try it? Draw a circle. Inside it, write down all the things that are in your control right now—big or small, as many as you can think of. Outside of the circle, write down the things that you can’t influence.

When you feel yourself drifting into the terrifying land of what-ifs, come back to your circle. “When we focus on the things we can do for ourselves, it can reduce anxiety, and it can help propel helpful action,” White says.

It can also be helpful to create some sort of practical plan for yourself to give yourself a sense of empowerment in the here-and-now, despite the who-knows-ness of the future, Dr. Danovich says. You might be thinking: How am I supposed to make a plan when I have no idea what’s coming? Again, the key is to focus on what you do know—and what you can control.

“In this case, a plan has to do with having necessary supplies, knowing what you’re going to do to adhere to the public-health directives on quarantine, and ensuring that you’re in a position to care for yourself and for other people that you might be responsible for,” he says. “The common theme here is holding things in balance: You need to have a plan, but you also need to have some flexibility and contingency plans so that if things change, you can adapt to that quickly.”

2. Know That What You’re Feeling Is Probably Normal

This situation is certainly not normal—but your response to it probably is.

“Almost everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety right now, even if they’ve never experienced anxiety before,” says White. “We’re all experiencing this groundlessness, and we don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s hard for human beings because we’re all just trying to survive in any way that we can.”

So if you’re feeling extra-stressed or consumed by worry about the future, give yourself permission to feel those feelings—and know you’re not alone. And while a certain amount of worry is normal, how do you know when it may be time to reach out and seek help?

“When the anxiety prevents an adaptive response, when it’s paralyzing—when one is just reverberating in a state of fear or distress, then I think one might need some assistance,” says Dr. Danovich. That may mean reaching out to your primary-care provider or finding a therapist if you don’t already have one to speak to about how you’re feeling, he says.

And there’s no reason to delay: Many therapists are now offering telehealth sessions. A good place to start your therapist search is Psychology Today, White says. Open Path Collective is another resource that helps you find at therapist offering sliding scale rates.

3. Get Back to Basics

When you find yourself feeling especially consumed by pandemic-related fear or worry, White says it’s wise to take a pause and ask yourself if you’re taking care of your basic needs—and look at what’s within your power to address them.

“If you’re tired, if you’re not sleeping, if you’re hungry—if you’re not doing this basic self-care, it’s going to make it really make it more difficult to regulate your emotions,” White explains.

So when tensions are extra high due to COVID-19, it’s all the more important to make sure you’re tending to those physical necessities, tuning into your physical body.

“Protecting one’s ability to sleep, getting good nutrition, and trying to have exercise or fresh air—those are all really fundamental pieces to preserving one’s sense of well-being and one’s ability to cope and adapt,” says Dr. Danovich.

If the pandemic is affecting your finances, meeting some of these basic needs, like providing food for your family, may be difficult. While the Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package on March 25 that includes things like $1,200 checks for most adults and breaks on things like student loans, according to a report in the New York Times, these changes may not be enough for many American families. In the meantime, take stock of the resources in your area that you can access for help, like food banks (Feeding America allows you to search for options in your area), and make sure to apply for unemployment if you’re eligible—the stimulus package also included expansion of unemployment coverage.

4. Make Movement a Priority

One of those physical needs that many people are pushing to the backburner right now is physical activity. Isolated from home and no longer able to go into the office or hit the gym down the street, many Americans are finding they’re not able to get as much movement into their day during the pandemic. But movement can majorly benefit your mental health, White says. And while you might not be able to do the things you normally do for exercise, focus on the options that are still available to you.

But that doesn’t mean you need to subscribe to an online workout program and start doing intense daily workouts from your living room if you don’t want to, White says.

“Even things like stretching or light yoga can be so important, because a lot of us are feeling that anxiety, and movement, putting yourself in your body, creates a type of grounding where you kind of have to be in the present moment a bit more because you’re feeling those physical sensations in your body,” she explains.

So make it a daily goal: Take some time to be present in your body, which can help you take a necessary break from any future-focused thoughts. Any amount of time you spend moving will benefit your mental health, too.

5. Set Your Routine—and Your Boundaries

One of the best things you can do for yourself during these unprecedented times, says White, is to set boundaries. But what exactly does that look like on a day-to-day basis? You can set boundaries with people in your life, of course, but also with yourself, she explains. And part of that may be sticking to a routine.

“Especially with those of us that are all working for home, it’s a big adjustment for a lot people. Even being away from relatives who usually visit can be a big adjustment,” she says. “So trying to maintain some kind of routine can be helpful, like getting up in the morning, showering, moving your body in some way that feels good, making sure you’re eating enough, and you’re hydrating. A lot of times people don’t realize how much things like these can really impact our emotions.”

So while it may be tempting to stay in your PJs all day and roll out of bed just in time for that work call, creating a routine and sticking to it may boost your mood and help you feel productive, even when you’re not sure what the next few months hold.

6. Limit and Curate Your Social Media and News Intake

During this major worldwide crisis when many are stuck at home, it’s only natural that we’re all glued to our device screens, getting finger cramps from endlessly scrolling through Twitter and various news sites. And while it’s important to stay informed, we can empower ourselves to make healthy choices about our media consumption, experts say.

“We are deluged by information right now, and while it’s important to access information from accurate sources, it’s also important to place a limit on how much time we spend staying updated when there’s not necessarily substantive new information coming out,” says Dr. Danovich. “Because being overconsumed in information can be a coping mechanism for trying to control the uncontrollable. But the reality is there’s only so much information each day, and at some point, it can just put us in an echo chamber of worries.”

White recommends setting boundaries for yourself with your media consumption if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with worry over this uncertain situation. Give yourself permission to take a break from the constant noise, and don’t be afraid to press that unfollow button if you’re finding yourself anxious all the time.

“I would recommend that people try to be without any TV, computer, social media, or phone for a few minutes every day just to practice a little bit of space,” she says. “Right now, everyone is talking about coronavirus all the time. Make sure you also are taking a break and checking in with yourself and noticing how you feel, anything that can be sensations like even if you just take a shower or a bath and create sensations that can get you out of your head and into your body.”

7. Create Moments of Connection

One of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 situation is that many people are no longer able to be around friends and family—and anyone else, for that matter. Even maintaining a 6-foot distance from your neighbors at the grocery store is the new—and necessary—normal. But don’t let these changes lead you to isolate from all forms of connection, experts urge. While not traditional, perhaps, there are ways to stay connected—for example, many people are turning to virtual happy hours or coffee dates over Facetime or video software like Zoom to keep up with friends and family during the pandemic.

“It’s helpful to try to have connection to the people we ordinarily rely on for support,” says Dr. Danovich. “Don’t allow social distancing to be emotional distancing.”

Again, if you’re feelings of loneliness and isolation are interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional like a therapist for that human-to-human support, says White. You might not ever need to call them again in your life…but if you do right now, you do. And it’s ok.

8. Find Ways to Help Others

Turning your attention toward others during this time can be another way to redirect anxious thoughts and energy to something productive and helpful for others. Again, instead of focusing on what might happen, ask yourself, “What can I do right now?”

“This is a time when there’s a lot of need for people’s service,” says Dr. Danovich. “Being generous with helping people in our community is a powerful way of taking care of others and taking care of oneself.”

While following any guidelines for social distancing from your local government, you can still think about ways to reach out to people in your community who may be going through extra difficulties during this time.

“Think about whether there are elderly folks in your community that need outreach. Are there disabled individuals who have difficulty accessing provisions? Are there people that don’t speak English, or people from cultures or areas of the world or dispositions that may be marginalized right now that could use a random act of reaching out and checking on how they’re doing?” he says. “During times of crisis, people that face existing challenges—socioeconomic challenges, cultural challenges, homelessness, substance use—they’re all vulnerable to being impacted by these stressors even more. They don’t have the reserve and the compensatory supports that other people may have, so I think it’s important to think about how we can support them.”

  • CDC Homepage for Up-to-Date Coronavirus Information: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)." cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
  • Johns Hopkins University’s Up-to-Date COVID-19 Tracker: Johns Hopkins University’s Center for System’s Science and Engineering. (2020). "Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE."
  • New York Times Report on Stimulus Package Details: The New York Times. (2020). "F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Bill."
Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.