Gareth Hughesis the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well
Student life and the world around us can create many uncertainties for students. Learn how uncertainty affects your thinking and how you can work with it to maintain your wellbeing.
University life has always contained uncertainty, especially for new students. But recent upheavals in society, such as the pandemic and worries about the economy have increased this for many students. This article looks at managing uncertainty at university.
When we experience uncertainty it may cause anxiety because we don’t know what will happen or because it forces us to make decisions, when we can’t confidently predict the outcomes. When confronted by high levels of uncertainty about university life, it can be easy to fall into one of the following thinking behaviours.
Thinking behaviours in response to uncertainty
1. Avoiding thinking about it
Whenever you are confronted by uncertainty, you may simply want to stop thinking about it completely and pretend that it isn’t happening. This might help you feel better in the moment, because while you’re not thinking about it, you don’t feel as stressed. But this won’t help you plan and take control and you may miss important information or opportunities to make things better.
2. Ruminating over it
You may find yourself ruminating about the fact that this uncertainty is happening and wishing it would go away. This may turn into anger towards other people or organisations because they aren’t able to give you the certainty you want.
Even if you are justified in feeling this way, continuing to ruminate like this is unlikely to help you. Rumination tends to make us feel worse over time and uses up energy and emotion.
3. Bouncing between options
As a way to bring the uncertainty to an end, you may find yourself trying to make decisions about what you are going to do but quickly changing your mind. As no option feels like the perfect solution, you keep abandoning each decision and looking for something better.
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So what can you do?
Uncertainty can often be difficult to manage, and different approaches work for different people. The most helpful starting point is trying to accept the reality of the situation.
1. Accepting reality
When we accept reality, we can then work to change and improve it. While we avoid it, try to wish it away or dwell on the unfairness of things being uncertain, we aren’t in a position to make things any better.
This also means we have to accept our own emotional reaction to uncertainty. It is ok to be frustrated, sad, disappointed, anxious or angry that your experiences aren’t as you’d imagined or hoped they would be. These emotions are just directing you to the fact that something important needs your attention.
2. Be kind to yourself
Try to resist the temptation of thinking that you ‘should’ be able to handle what’s going on. Or that other people are managing their emotions better than you. You feel this way because you are a human being and the situation is very uncertain. Your emotions are a normal response to living through abnormal circumstances.
Listen to your emotions and to the concerns that they raise and reassure yourself that it is ok to feel this way. But remember, just because you feel like this today, it doesn’t mean you will feel like this in the long term or that your university experience won’t get better.
3. Take steps to make the best of the situation
If we can accept uncertainty and focus on what we can do to improve the situation, then we can reduce our emotional arousal and take practical steps to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.
Once we accept reality, we can also accept that no solution is going to be perfect. This is ok – student life is never perfect anyway. Life is always full of ups and downs.
So instead of looking for the right decision, we can instead focus on making as good a decision as possible in the circumstances. Remember, whatever you chose, this doesn’t mean you are giving up a perfect alternative. Our minds can sometimes become so fixated on trying to pick the best possible option that we can’t make any choice at all.
Whatever decisions you make to take control, the key is for you to build an action plan to make those decisions work as well as they can.