The 2016 federal election has created an atmosphere of undeniable uncertainty. Many important issues are being raised: the economy, terrorism, war, human rights. Unfortunately, we're not being offered definitive answers. And with the state of the environment we're living in, we want them.
Truth is, our environment has always been uncertain. We don't have control over much of what happens to us. Even within the presidential electoral process, where we have a right to vote for our own leader, we are only given two choices. (Of course, we can vote for other candidates, but they have literally no chance of winning, so it's a bit of a fallacy).
In this election, many feel we are being offered two poor choices, and voting for the lesser of two evils. This creates helplessness, intolerance, even outrage -- and with that, more uncertainty.
Uncertainty Can Increase Stress and Affect Health
A study in Psychological Science purports that people who scored high on a trait called neuroticism exhibited more stress when faced with uncertainty, than when faced with negative feedback or a negative outcome.
Neuroticism is a trait that describes someone who is more prone to experience distress based on external factors. When the state of their environment or the world feels uncertain, their stress levels can become unmanageable. Neuroticism is linked to poorer physical and mental health, such as obesity and hypertension, as well as a higher risk for mortality.
In the current political and cultural atmosphere, many people -- who were not particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors -- are becoming more so.
The media conspicuously reminds us of the uncertainty of our times, showing unsettling footage over and over, which makes a healthy umbrella of denial nearly impossible. This causes most of us to be vulnerable to distress based on the outside environment. (And it's not making the relationships among citizens any better, either.)
So How Do We Manage Uncertainty?
Since stress is associated with poorer physical and mental health, and uncertainty causes stress, it's important to find ways to cope.
Here are three suggestions:
1. Use Discretion When Reading or Watching the News
When you watch, listen or read the news, be discerning. People are reporting trauma reactions from overexposure to media: more stress, more anxiety, nightmares, sleep disturbances, intrusive, disturbing thoughts and images, even depressed mood.
Do not watch the news before bed. Instead, watch something light or entertaining (at the very least, not news related); it will facilitate better sleep. It's good to be informed of current events, but we don't need to be exposed all day long.
Also, choose which media outlets you go to for sources of information. Many are not reliable, tend to be sensationalized, and can cause increased uncertainty. More fear, paradoxically, can lead some people to watch or read the news more often. It's a way of attempting to restore certainty when there isn't any.
Pay attention to your reactions to the news. If you find yourself feeling compelled to read or watch frequently throughout the day, step back and think about how you're feeling as a result.
2. Focus on What You Can Control
It's helpful to focus on what we have control over. For example, every day we have the choice to eat healthy, exercise, spend time with loved ones, or engage in activities which interest us and are enjoyable.
Call an old friend, read a new book, go shopping or to a movie, or participate in community service. If you're invested in a particular political candidate, volunteer for their campaign. We may live under an umbrella of uncertainty, but we do have choices in terms of how we conduct our daily lives. Besides, having a positive attitude is far better for our long-term health.
3. Do Not Engage in Angry Tirades
I have heard quite a few stories of conversations that turned from a difference of opinion into full-blown angry tirades. (This happens a lot on social media where people can go off on violent diatribes and hide behind a fake screen name.)
Only engage in healthy discourse. Walk away, block the person, step away from the computer, hang up the phone. People have a right to disagree, but there is a vast difference between respectfully disagreeing, and engaging in angry rants and verbal assaults.
Besides, if someone is on an angry tirade, they're not going to hear a word you're saying. Remaining in an interpersonal exchange like this will only cause you more stress and more anger, and exacerbate underlying feelings of uncertainty.
Healthy discourse, where we can voice differing opinions and actually hear what others have to say, can help build unity and cohesiveness. But whenever a conversation turns hostile or angry, end it.
Yes, uncertainty can be hard to come to terms with, but learning better ways to cope can reduce distress in our daily lives. Now, more than ever, it's important to concentrate on things that give our lives value, and to inspire others to live the same way.
Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.
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