Why uncertainty can be stressful

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

Coronavirus has created lots of uncertainty for all of us. This is particularly true for university students, whether you are a current student or you are about to go to university for the first time this year.

What could be making you stressed?

We know that students are worried about how teaching will happen, how the pandemic will affect their social lives and support, what resources will be available to them, how social distancing will work in halls, how their own health may be affected and what happens if there is another local or national lockdown.

It is entirely understandable that this uncertainty is causing many students to feel increased anxiety, disappointment and lowered mood. You may feel like you just want to know what will happen – to be told ‘it’s definitely going to be like this,’ even if the answers aren’t what you want to hear.

You may find that the uncertainty is causing you to constantly think and rethink your options or to ruminate on why this is happening to you. Or it might make you want to not think about it at all and hide away, because thinking about it makes you feel stressed.

In these circumstances, this is perfectly normal. As human beings we crave certainty and would often prefer bad news to continued uncertainty.

Our instinctive response to anxiety

Our response to uncertainty has evolved to keep us safe in situations when we might be in danger. If a movement in a bush might be a lion or the wind, it is sensible to be aware and ready to react, just in case it is a lion. So, when there is great uncertainty around some major aspect of our lives, we go into a state of heightened awareness and arousal.

In the short term this can actually be very helpful. It helps to keep us safe and to react quickly, if we need to. It is only when the uncertainty persists for a long time that it can become a problem. Being hyper alert is tiring and stressful, if we don’t get a chance to switch off and recuperate or to bring a sense of certainty back to our lives.

Uncertainty isn’t necessarily harmful

This doesn’t mean that uncertainty in your life will inevitably have a negative impact on you and your wellbeing. Not all uncertainty causes us stress. There are many things about which we are uncertain – Will it rain tomorrow? Who will win the Eurovision song contest next year? How many leaves will fall from the trees in your area this autumn? But these things don’t usually cause us any stress.

Uncertainty causes problems for us when we perceive some level of potential threat, in the future, to us and our wellbeing. We worry about the uncertainty of this academic year because we are worried it will affect our studies, our experience, our friendships, our happiness and our future careers.

How to adapt your approach

You can learn to adapt your approach, thinking and behaviours in ways that can reduce the impact of uncertainty and make you feel more positive about the future. Just because the next year at university is uncertain, it does not mean you can’t take control, plan and give yourself the best possible opportunity of having a good time as a student.

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