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U is for Uncertainty (Avoidance)

By Malika Noor Mehta

Artwork by Shridhi Pandya

The world is uncertain. If we know anything, we know that. In the last year, the pandemic has made the word “uncertain” both, ubiquitous and menacing. There has been uncertainty around health – everything from access to medication and frantic searches for ICU beds, to social media pleas for oxygen. There has been uncertainty around information – do we wait 3 weeks between vaccine doses or 3 months? Are these vaccines even effective against the various strains of the virus? Are our leaders telling us the truth about COVID-19 or playing politics? And of course, there has been uncertainty around life itself – will we survive this? Will our loved ones survive? Will we ever return to the norms and routines of a pre-pandemic world? And if not, what will the new normal look like?

Uncertainty runs rampant in our world, and yet, we lack the ability to cope with it. In fact, we often go to great lengths to avoid uncertainty and clamour to impose rules, regulations and routines into aspects of life that cannot be controlled. In recent research, a concept called “uncertainty avoidance” emerged, explaining why organizations, groups and even societies rely upon social norms and procedures to alleviate unpredictability. In psychological parlance “uncertainty avoidance” is defined by an inherent intolerance to ambiguity and a psychological need for formal rules. Why are we, both at an individual level as well as a society, so averse to uncertainty? What drives the fear behind it? And how do we survive when the one certainty is uncertainty itself?

Uncertainty Avoidance – as a socio-cultural concept

As a socio-cultural term, uncertainty avoidance examines the degree to which a society feels defenceless in the face of opacity, doubt and ever-changing situations. It examines the lengths that individuals within that community go to avoid such situations. As a cultural concept, uncertainty avoidance demonstrates the point at which a community encourages its members to step out of their comfort zone and deal with circumstances that are unpredictable and challenging. Uncertainty avoidance occurs in degrees – one can experience high levels of uncertainty avoidance or low levels of it. An individual may express his or her fear of uncertainty more vehemently and explicitly while a society, as a whole, might demonstrate its avoidance of uncertainty through larger, slower, subtler trends that emerge over time. These trends may only be distinguishable in hindsight.

Avoiding uncertainty in a pandemic

The socio-cultural roots of the concept “uncertainty avoidance” are important because it may explain the larger psychological impact of the pandemic and why these recent years have been so traumatic. While the pandemic has caused unimaginable loss of life and livelihood, the continued trauma (even after the concentrated waves) arises from the ever-present uncertainty that the pandemic has inflicted upon the world at large.

In certain cultures, the reliance upon, and comfort drawn from well-planned structures, clear norms, and understandable guidelines provide individuals comfort and become key characteristics of how a culture defines itself. In America, for instance, there was enormous push back against leaders like Anthony Fauci who adjusted his medical recommendations as the scientific information pertaining to COVID-19 increased. Fauci’s guidelines around mask-wearing, for example, changed as he discovered that COVID-19 could be airborne for a few hours at a time. This was knowledge he did not have early in the pandemic, but when these discoveries were made, he edited his recommendations to better reflect the recent research. While addressing critics who claimed he “flip-flopped,” he said, “That’s the way science works!”

Fauci’s editorial process perturbed many people who were searching for consistency. Many were not willing to accept that pandemic norms would have to change on an almost weekly basis based on the research. Why? Because many find comfort in routine, and when those routines are disrupted consistently, the levels of anxiety the person experiences rise exponentially.

Controlling anxiety around uncertainty

It is no surprise that cultures and people tend to steer clear of uncertainty. The stress and anxiety caused by the unknown can be immense. How does one deal with this, especially when cultural norms encourage us to constantly search for predictability, clarity and understanding? Here are few thoughts:

Limit exposure to negative news: As the pandemic rages on, and uncertainty increases, only read what is absolutely necessary. There is an immense amount of misinformation being circulated through social media. Stay away from news outlets that are not verified and limit the number of hours you spend reading the news.

Seek support from those who you trust and love: Talking to your loved ones about your fear of uncertainty, and the anxiety it is causing may indeed help alleviate some of that anxiety. It may provide an avenue through which you experience human empathy – an emotion that is so critical to community building and friendship – we are all in this together, and we need to know and feel that sense of community.

Ask for professional mental health help: Therapy is an incredible tool when it comes to alleviating uncertainty. In fact, for an individual searching for structure, therapy can provide exactly that – routine, clarity and consistency. Investing time, money and effort in finding the right therapist and showing up for each session is critical.

Ultimately, we as a society are not geared towards uncertainty and we naturally avoid it. In these times, we need to reset our minds in order to embrace the unknown and view it as exciting rather than menacing. We will never go back to a pre-pandemic world. Our psychological structures are forever altered because of COVID-19, but that is ok. We need to find the right way to move forward and cope, without allowing our aversion of uncertainty to overpower us.


About the author

Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.


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