June 2nd, 2020

Welcome to MaybeLand

Larry Laveman, LCSW, BCD

The problem with COVID-19 is that it’s just so damn uncertain. There are many more questions than answers and the answers that do exist are not satisfying. For those who have lost loved ones, or who have contracted the virus themselves, there is some certainty to the illness. For those who are suffering financially, or living in fear and panic, there is also certainty to those hardships. But on the macro level, where the invisible threat of infectious disease looms large, there is no certainty. Well, maybe some; it’s airborne and it’s a respiratory illness. But then why does it affect other organs? We don’t really know. Why do some people, regardless of existing conditions, become critically ill, while so many have little to no symptoms? We’re not really sure. Is there a connection between COVID-19 and Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome in children? Possibly. Does less mobility equals less transmission? Are masks really necessary to stop the spread? Is the death rate as bad as they say? Will the virus mutate? Ease up in the summer? Return with flu season? Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe and maybe. Welcome to life in MaybeLand.

Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist, said of the quantum world, you can never be sure of anything. He aptly named his theory the Uncertainty Principle. Uncertainty, as it turns out, is somewhat of an Achilles heel for us. We hate uncertainty. Loathe it, in fact. But, uncertainty also drives us to “know” what’s going on. It makes us strive for answers so we can stop playing the “why” game. As we’ve come to learn, however, there are always more “why?” questions than there are certain answers. Many studies have shown the relationship between uncertainty and stress. That’s not a surprise. More surprising, however, is that studies show uncertainty is more stressful than knowing a definitive negative outcome will occur. That is, anticipatory anxiety is the worst kind of uncertainty. That’s why you may hear someone say they want to get the virus; so they don’t have to keep waiting to get it. Of course, they only want to get it if they’re certain they will survive it. No one can provide that guarantee so maybe they really don’t want to get it, or do they? Life in MaybeLand can be, well, uncertain.

So, how do we reconcile the ambiguity of uncertainty with the coronavirus? Paradoxically, the best way to deal with uncertainty is to give up control over the outcome. By giving up control we actually gain more of it. Outcomes are future based and the more we focus on uncertain outcomes the higher our anticipatory anxiety becomes. Therefore, the best way to counter our tendency to catastrophize the future is to live in the moment. Find your gratitude, no matter how harsh the outcome. The more you can control the moment, the more you can control your anxiety. Yes, the virus is lurking but so are all sorts of other unexpected events that we will have to deal with in our lifetime, including diseases that are insidious, common, known, and have never crossed our mind as something to be weary of. We really don’t pay much attention to them until we have to, and pandemics make us have to.

COVID-19 is happening everywhere at once and its lethal potential and rapid spread paired with a 24/7 news cycle that focuses solely on it, elevates uncertainty to a ridiculous level. It simply drives us mad not knowing what we’re in for. We cower in fear or we spit in its eye. Both reactions are normal when dealing with uncertainty, yet both are maladaptive. We can never be too careful and yet we don’t want to throw caution to the wind. We can’t rule out uncertainty but we can learn to live with it. Our existence isn’t like the certainty of math where 1 + 1 = 2 infinitely. That equation doesn’t exist in MaybeLand. A better solution is to live for today, but live smart. No spitting or cowering. No futurizing or pity parties. Just focus on the present. Rather than living in MaybeLand, where there’s no promise for tomorrow, live for today where there’s more control over the moment.

Larry Laveman, LCSW, BCD practices in Solana Beach, California.