What the Mentally Ill can Teach America about Uncertainty

Masters of Uncertainty

If you have a mental illness, you are a master of uncertainty. You pray to be able to get out of bed for a job interview. You worry your depression will ruin a family cruise planned for months. You despair as your OCD triggers you to spell-check your college paper a hundred times. 

Many mentally ill people will tell you that what we most envy from our neighbors is not their car or house but their regular lives. We long for job security, a stable relationship, a reliable schedule, and a little trust in tomorrow. 

America is scared. It has joined us, struggling with a mental illness, in the unsettling feeling of a perilous tomorrow.

Recession, violence, and political turmoil, are rampant. It is time for us, mental illness uncertainty experts, to offer our wisdom to society. Our precious painful experiences should not go to waste.

Centuries of struggling with mental illness have taught seven key strategies for controlling uncertainty and anxiety.

Catastrophizing

Exaggeration is the first cousin of uncertainty. Since our struggle with fearsome dinosaurs, our minds are wired to expect the worst. This inclination toward the negative has its advantages. If we forecast the dire, a little grain of good will feel excitingly delightful. On the contrary, faced with the worst, well… it was expected. We believe that by predicting the awful, we can control it. However, that entails false anticipation.  

We, who face a mental illness, have learned to recognize our terrifying internal voices. That awareness is challenging. The deceiving voice is part of us. Uncertainty is that voice’s megaphone.  In our uncertain times, be prepared for an intensification of your catastrophic internal dialogue.

Our struggle with mental illness has taught us to lower the intensity of our inner negative voice by exercising self-reflection. Some of us meditate, take mindful walks, or pray to achieve a quiet mind. I prefer to quiet my mind by practicing Mixed Martial Arts. What’s crucial, is that you prepare yourself for a period of intensified catastrophizing inner dialogue. Establish strategies to control your negative inner voice.

The Eye of the Hurricane

Your greatest certainty is being in the moment. The “right now” is the peaceful eye of the hurricane. The now is real. The more you dwell on what could be, your anxiety will balloon. In the words of comedian Jim Carrey: 

If you aren’t at the moment, you are either looking forward to uncertainty or back to pain and regret.

Meditation, breathing exercises, cooking, gardening, reading a book, or watching or movie may ground you in the moment.

Embrace Your strengths

Studies reveal that two-thirds of Americans can’t name their strengths. How could you battle uncertainty while ignorant of your arsenal of strengths? Think about your strengths as a spinning top. The top maintains equilibrium standing on a needle. Similarly, our struggle with mental illness has taught us that you will need energy and a solid support point to keep balance. Your natural strengths, such as courage, forgiveness, curiosity, or sociability, are your stable points. 

Would you like to know your strengths? Take the Via (Values in Action) instrument. (You can find a free version at my Positive Psychology blog: 

https://www.bipolarrabbi.com/positive-psychology-and-mental-health/.

Your strengths are barriers protecting you against uncertainty.

Uncertain Possibilities

Mental illness has taught us that the uncertain presents us with possibilities. Faced with uncertainty, we can envision different outcomes. Who knows, something extraordinary may emerge out of the unsettling void of the unknown. In times of uncertainty, play with possibilities. Feel free to dream. In the words of American writer Rebecca Solnit:

To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.

Educate Your Uncertainty 

The mentally ill are diagnostic encyclopedias. To remain in control, we read everything about our condition. Sometimes we fall into overwhelming misinformation. Still, the act of learning weakens the ghost of uncertainty. Dissipate your uncertainty by connecting to reliable sources of information. Discontent yourself from the negative news panic industry. In the words of American mathematician Claude Shannon:

Information is the resolution of uncertainty. 

Practice Vulnerable Compassion

In times of uncertainty, love others more, and make an extra effort to practice compassion and understanding. Faced with uncertainty, you will first build a protective shield around you. You will become less tolerant and look for somebody else to blame. Those are instinctual fear-based reactions. Take a time-out, reflect on your feelings, and redirect the potent energy of fear toward the constructive. Turn uncertainty into a loving opportunity.  

Fear

Fear is a normal reaction to uncertainty. Our challenge is how not to become paralyzed by fear. We must distinguish between fear and cautiousness. It is natural to take a defensive stand during a crisis. That stand is a form of action. Mental illness is scary. But many of us living with a mental illness have learned that developing an action plan can move us from paralysis to action. Have a crisis plan ready. In the words of American author Gabrielle Bernstein: 

Fear is often our immediate response to uncertainty. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing fear. The key is not to get stuck in it

Welcome to the wisdom of mental illness! We hope that our journey has enlightened yours.

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