Thinking about the uncertainty of the academic year during the pandemic

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

When confronted by high levels of uncertainty about the next academic year, it can be easy to fall into one of a number of thinking behaviours.

Thinking behaviours in response to uncertainty

  1. You may simply want to stop thinking about the next academic year completely and pretend that all of this uncertainty 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 for next year and you may miss important information or opportunities to make things better.
  2. You may find yourself ruminating about the fact that this uncertainty is happening and wishing it would go away. This may turn into anger at your university, the government or the world 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. 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 or bouncing about between different options. 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? Accepting uncertainty

Uncertainty can often be difficult to manage. While different approaches work for different people, the most helpful starting point is trying to accept the reality of the situation. 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 this year at university isn’t going to be as you’d imagined or hoped it would be. These emotions are just directing you to the fact that something important needs your attention.

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 the academic year won’t be good.

The fact is that this uncertainty is going to continue for some time yet. Predicting how the pandemic will progress is impossible even for the experts. But if we can accept the uncertainty and focus on what we can do, 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 a 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.

So, the key thing is that whatever decisions you make to take control and increase certainty, you then build an action plan to make those decisions work as well as they can.

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