Living with uncertainty

The Expatability Chat Podcast

How to thrive in these uncertain times

Dealing with uncertainty: how to regain a sense of control when everything feels so up in the air.

Not only are we dealing with ‘unprecedented’ times, we are also dealing with a huge amount of uncertainty on a daily basis.

Uncertainty about the future is normal; we cannot see what is likely to happen in our lives. These days, however, we are also living with uncertainty about the present, which causes all kinds of horrible feelings and emotions. Things change so quickly that it’s all very unsettling.

When you’re planning a move abroad, or potentially moving anywhere, this uncertainty is even more a feature of your life: expat life comes with uncertainty attached.

  • Maybe the company says you might be posted overseas… but they don’t know for sure.
  • Or you will be posted overseas… but you don’t know when.
  • Or you don’t know how long the posting will last…
  • Will you move on? When and where? 

And all the other questions that come with moving abroad – schooling, housing, etc etc. And now, of course, will you even be able to fly to that country? Will you have to produce some kind of proof of vaccination paperwork? Will you have to quarantine? Will there be another outbreak that shuts borders again?

Find out what uncertainty I’m personally facing in this episode and learn some tips to cope so you can find a little peace too.

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Hi, welcome back to Episode 27 of Expatability Chat! And I hope you're all doing really well in these uncertain times. So, how many times have we heard that phrase over the past year? 'Uncertain times'. Cliché indeed, but very true as all clichés are. Right now, we are all living in very uncertain times, and within this, our own individual lives are battling uncertainty to a greater or lesser degree.

As human beings, regardless of where we live in the world, regardless of our situation, we live with uncertainty on a daily basis, in normal times. And these are, of course, not normal times. I was going to give this episode the title of The Uncertainty Principle, but then I figured I'd get some very confused scientists listening in. However, I do kind of vaguely understand the basics of Heisenberg's ideas; the fuzziness of nature and the moving goalposts or particles of life.

Anyway, I've mentioned in a previous episode that I'm not great at making plans for the future because for me, as soon as I have one part pinned down, the other shifts somewhere else and all my plans go kaput. And this is what's been happening in my own life recently. My husband, currently still working from home, is due to go overseas at some point this year. Before he does that, he has various trainings and courses to go on, which, of course, due to covid are a little tricky for his office to organise. So we're drifting along, waiting for this, that and the other, and watching the government's travel updates as the rules may mean that this whole thing may not even happen.

Uncertainty reigns supreme in this household right now. And you can't look directly at it because simply the act of looking changes the outcome. Yeah, if we're still going with the quantum physics, that's the Schrodinger's reference there. At the moment, husband is both going and not going overseas until proven otherwise. It's really confusing.

So the other day, I got summoned for jury service. It's a civic duty here in the U.K. We can't refuse to do it. That's fine. I'm really looking forward to doing something different. Seeing some different walls. It means something new to do, getting out of the house for a while, even seeing people in real life. Wow! However, it turns out that the week I'm due to attend is the week my husband's work have now set a training course for him away from home.

So I completed the online summons form to defer, giving other dates I could do, which was again a bit tricky because we don't know precisely when husband is actually due to leave. A few days later, I got a letter through the mail with a new date for my jury service. That same day my husband received his date for his overseas posting. Yep, you've guessed it. Another clash. Anyway, let's shorten this long story. I got on the phone and it's all finally worked out. I'll be doing my jury service in mid March.

Still living in uncertainty, because if the government changes its minds about travel, then the whole thing may still be off.

Right now, we are all living in flux, in uncertainty, in fear, in so many emotions it's actually really exhausting. From concerns about our family and friends, concerns about catching the virus, perhaps facing financial and job instability, it's hardly surprising that most of us are feeling anxious. If you're involved in moving and living overseas, that anxiety ramps up even further. I'd be surprised if you can find someone who hasn't been affected by the stress, isolation and uncertainty of the last year.

Anxiety in uncertain times is a daily feeling. You're living with uncertainty, and this can evoke strong feelings of insecurity, instability and doubt. You're feeling off kilter, discombobulated, even bored, and many, many other weird feelings that just don't go away and are increased with every single news update. So why is uncertainty so difficult for us to deal with? For some people, looking back on life before covid is a kind of coping mechanism. It's something tangible that they rely on when the uncertainty of this new life becomes overwhelming. Other people find it really, really hard to look back. But looking back may not be helpful. This is because retrospective dreaming and nostalgia can trigger a huge sense of loss, making looking forward even more upsetting because we simply can't see a way out of this new world. Usually uncertainty refers to the future and we're kind of fine with that, normally. We can't see into the future. Nobody can. However, nowadays, uncertainty is the present as well. The now. So we're dealing with uncertainty in our day to day life as well as uncertainty looking forward.

Recent research, very recent research, suggests that practising future visualisation may help. Looking forward and imagining a positive version of the future for you. Personally, I'm not convinced, but it may work for you, so I'm throwing it in there. We're basically back to my planning and quantum crap again. I prefer to just go day by day. And more recently, hour by hour has been my limit. And being present for everything I can be present for. What I mean by this is if my daughter interrupts my work to show me her new favourite Tiktok or some Instagram images, I swallow my irritation and I'm present for her for those few minutes. It's vital for her mental well-being, as I've learnt, it's one of her coping mechanisms and a way for her to distract herself for a while. I can catch up with myself later on. Plus, they're also really funny and do help us bond.

I know it's really hard being present when you're working set hours from home, your partner's working from home, making loud Zoom calls; you're trying to get your kids do their schoolwork at the kitchen table, the cat's just thrown up on the carpet and the dog has an ear infection. But do try. Do try to be present for your children especially. And for you. It is really worth it. You're living through - and another cliché is coming up - unprecedented times, and all you can do is your best. Try to ease off the pressure cooker for a while, particularly if your kids are having a hard time with the schoolwork. I could go on and on about this topic, but not here, I think. Please feel free to book a call in with me if you're finding it all too much right now, I'm here to help.

The thing is, humans are hard wired as creatures of habit. We need stability. It helps us find our ground amidst a rocky, uncertain world. Even if you're someone, like most expats, who gets great pleasure from doing new things, we still like a little bit of routine. Think about your babies. We know how much babies and kids thrive on routine. It forms a stable ground on which to learn new skills and to explore new boundaries. For example, you know how much better your little ones sleep when they're in your own family's night-time routine.

When your kids become teens, this stability is even more needed. And this is when those boundaries are pushed, really pushed, almost a breaking point at some times. But by having those boundaries, having that stability, having those routines, enables everybody to explore a little further. Having a form of stability saves our energy, both mental and physical. It allows us to focus on these new things. A child doesn't need to worry about where their next meal is coming from because their parents deal with that.

This means that child can focus all of their energy on learning to walk, finding out what grass feels like, or tastes like. They know they can rely on mum and dad to keep their habitual life stable so that they can explore safely. It's much the same for adults, too. While children tend to focus on the moment, adults need to look forward and we can look back too. But mainly here. I want to look at the forward thinking part.

Our brain needs to know what to expect, what's coming next so it can focus its energy on what's necessary. Whether this is thinking about what to cook tomorrow or the shopping list for next week or whatever, just day to day life means. We need stability to help our brains work effectively and efficiently. And this is why and how we form habits. Forming a habit makes certain activities a routine so we don't spend any energy thinking about them. Habits - when we do the same thing over and over - the connection in the brain, the neurones, are strengthened until that thing becomes second nature, a habit. We don't have to think about doing it. It's become natural and our brain uses less energy on that particular thing.

So for a child, learning to read takes time and a lot of mental energy. To an adult it's second nature. We barely think about reading, we just do it. We do think about it when we move to a new country with a different language and we are suddenly rendered almost illiterate. And we have to exercise our brains again to learn a new language. It will soon become habit and second nature. It's how the brain works. Our day to day lives are made up of routines. However wild and carefree and spontaneous you may think you are, you are still a creature of habit. You probably eat at roughly the same time each day and sleep at roughly the same time each night. You may naturally be a night owl or you may naturally be a lark, and while you can change between the two, it will require energy as you create your new habit.

If you're used to going to sleep at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. and waking at say, 9:00 or 10:00, you can certainly force yourself to become an early to bed, early to rise lark if you want. It just takes considered input from you to create your new life, your new habit.

Anyway, back to uncertainty again. Because life has been so difficult, so weird, so upside down recently, many of our routines and habits have simply gone. Our brains are bombarded with hundreds of new things to process. And these are new things that we can't easily process because we've got nothing to compare them to. We don't know what's coming next. None of us have lived through anything like this before. We don't know whether the kids will be going back to school this month, next month, next year. Will we ever be able to fly to another country without spending a fortune on mandatory hotel quarantines? Will we ever be able to go on holiday again? When will I see my mum again? Anxiety rises. For some, panic isn't far off.

Now, we all face a certain amount of uncertainty in normal life, and that's fine even for control freaks, because that's just the way life is. But when we're faced with such a huge amount of uncertainty like we are right now, plus a genuine anxiety about life, covid and everything else, it can become problematic.

Our brains are literally too full of new issues and they become exhausted. This could be why you're finding it hard to focus and your brain may feel foggy. One of the effects of all this is hypervigilance; you're constantly aware and on guard all the time, you may be finding it hard to sleep. It's a form of the fight or flight mechanism, I'm not going to go into too much brain chemistry here. We don't need a full science lesson. But as I say, it's a form of the fight or flight mechanism. And there's another part of that mechanism, which is freeze. We can't fight or flee from the virus. We can't flee or fight lockdown and all these rules. So freeze may become the default setting from time to time. Hypervigilance can be difficult to maintain for a long period, it is exhausting. You may be used to it and not really notice until you don't need to anymore.

Let me explain. I've lived in some very dodgy places in London, on my own, and I often worked late and, let's be frank, partied very hard. More often than not, I'd miss the last bus home and walk back in the early hours. Always vigilant, always aware. And the same was when I lived in South Africa. Always alert. Who's at the traffic lights? Are there potential hijackers at that junction? Who's in the car park? Is it safe to get to my car? I was OK with it all, it all seemed quite normal to be on alert all the time. I only noticed how tense I was getting when I went on holiday to Mauritius and could finally wind down. Oh, holidays. Oh! Anyway, all this extra unusual kind of scary work your brain is dealing with right now, with drip fed information from the government and from the scientists with new daily life and struggles. All of this is why you may be finding it hard to focus on anything, to focus on work or on how the hell algebra works in this day and age. When your kids need online schooling help, you may be finding it hard to think clearly. Many people are finding the isolation really tough as they're used to, having normal day to day chit chat and interactions with other people, meeting up with friends, exercising the mind.

Maybe you're forgetting how to have normal conversations. I know I am. I also remember this from when I was isolated in an unfamiliar town with a baby and my husband was working away. I simply forgot how to talk to adults! There's no denying our normal routines have been disrupted - seems an understatement. Hopefully you were able to get into a new routine early on in the pandemic, but there's no harm in pushing it a little bit further now. Routines help set us on track and release our brain from a few extra bits of hard work.

I know I cope better on a daily basis if I've planned what I need to do the night before. This hasn't yet become a true habit and I've already explained it - I'm not good at planning: my email system will crack up, so I end up spending a day trying to fix that, instead of working on my podcast, for example. Or the dog will get sick and need a vet trip. Or my husband suddenly announces he's going on a week long course when I'm supposed to do jury service...

Anyway. How to cope with all of the uncertainty? The first thing to recognise with uncertainty overwhelm in this pandemic is that it roughly follows the stages of grief. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They don't always go in that order, but I bet you can find your current state in there somewhere. Anyway, I'm not diving into all that right here, but look into it if you find that that resonates with you, somehow.

A way to accept uncertainty is to look at psychology. We have to learn to accept uncertainty and work with it, not against it. If you are really struggling, then please find someone professional who can help you with your thought processes. While understanding the science, the neuroscience, behind what we're feeling is helpful, that isn't going to practically and efficiently get us through it. And practicality and efficiency are a couple of my main motivations in life. Unless we are working in pharmaceuticals and creating vaccines, there is literally nothing we can do about the virus.

We can only do our best with social distancing, handwashing and so on. So instead we need to find coping mechanisms to help us through these uncertain times. Thankfully, there are certain skills that you can develop to deal with these emotions and make life feel a little more secure.

But to begin with, it's worth noting that we all live with uncertainty all the time anyway, because unless we have the power of prediction, we can never truly guarantee what's going to happen tomorrow or next week. The first step is to recognise and accept you don't have full control over your life, not right now and not ever. Now, rather than look at all the negatives, which right now are numerous, try to find the positives, however small. I highly recommend making a gratitude journal and every evening write down at least three things you're grateful for that day. If you can write more, that's even better, but three needs to be the minimum. These are your wins. Each win represents success, hope, resilience and the more of these wins that you can gather, the more resilient you'll be. And that means you will be more grounded and comfortable in everyday life. You also go to bed with good thoughts in your mind, which always helps.

Mindfulness is another trait that can really help. It is touted a lot these days, and I highly recommend looking into it in more detail. It simply means being in the moment, living in the moment. For some people, it's a very hard skill to master. Personally, I find it quite easy to do, but I understand that it is something that needs to be worked at for many people. There are apps, there are fads, there's mindful hiking, mindful cooking and many more. But all you really need to do is focus on something you're doing. Not work stuff, not school stuff, but more hobby-ish than that.

The way I do it is bake a cake, for example, and just focus on that, because if I don't focus on the cake, I'll forget to put the eggs in or I'll forget to put the timer on and burn it.

Activate all your senses; look at the flour, touch the flour, feel the flour running through your fingers. Sorry, I'm getting the giggles now! Hear the sound of the eggs breaking. Now, clean them up off the floor! Taste the chocolate. No, don't eat it all... oh, too late. Have a vanilla cake. Smell the cake mixture. Bake your cake - mindfully. Basically it just means being in the present and activating all of your senses. Walking mindfully simply means opening your eyes, ears and nose to all that's around you. Touch the plants, hug a tree! Perhaps don't taste anything though, that could be dangerous.

I once spent some time in the Amazon jungle with a stranger that you tend to meet up with when you're backpacking on your own. And this person didn't seem to notice anything around her at all. I was all binoculars and camera and looking up trees and under rocks and squeaking at birds and looking for snakes and finding bats and moths and all sorts of wonderful creatures. At the end of our time together, she thanked me for opening her eyes to what was around her. She just hadn't noticed. I have no idea why she was in the Amazon jungle, but she had no clue on the environment she was in. So I do recognise that this kind of thing is natural to me, but not to everyone.

So practise some mindful activities. Try meditation, try breathing exercises to ground yourself in the moment. Get your exercise and hopefully some good sleep and just keep on keeping on.

Just remember, the feelings of anxiety and worry and living with uncertainty during this pandemic are completely normal. It's all a completely normal response to the current situation, so be kind to yourself.

So how can you regain a sense of control when everything feels so up in the air? Recognise and own the things that you can control. You cannot control the uncontrollable. When you focus on what you can't control that leads to stress and anxiety because there is nothing you can do about it.

Recognise that you cannot control everything and let it go. Relinquish that idea. Categorise the future as something that is out of your control and you will find it less stressful than trying to control it. Work on what you can control. That way, you're not giving up control of everything all at once. So perhaps that would be your environment, for example. How about redecorating? Move some stuff around in your home, make your workspace more inviting, do some gardening, take control of your exercise routine.

And talking of routines, another way to focus on the present is to get yourself into a daily routine. I mentioned routines earlier. It gives you something to focus on every day. Getting into a rhythm, a routine can help you adjust to this way of living - this temporary way of life. Set a wake up time, a bedtime and meal times. Get dressed every day. Do something that makes you happy. It can be as frivolous as you like.

You just need to change your view, your outlook somehow. Focus on the short term. I talked more about this in my New Year's episode, so please do go and listen to that if you haven't already. Don't overthink and try to be pragmatic. You cannot control the uncontrollable. Continue to build healthy habits which will help you in the long run. Nobody knows what's going to happen over the next couple of months, the next week, so for now, all we can do is focus on the day to day.

The other thing to do when faced with uncertainty is to ask yourself, what have I done in the past, which is similar and that I have succeeded at? What has the past taught you that you can make use of in the present? OK, so nothing at all is like the year that we've just gone through. But you may be able to grab something from your memory that has a parallel. For example, I grew up in the 70s, poor with only three channels on the TV, no Internet, no mobile phones, a couple of shops. The word 'bored' was not permitted in our house! So I can occupy myself with very little, I've had a lot of practise. I could watch raindrops race each other down the window pane. I can get lost in reading so many books. Even, and everyone laughs at this one, tying huge, complex knots in string so I could occupy myself untangling them. Yes, I'm weird, but it turns out to be quite a useful skill.

Use some means of daily relaxation so you're not building up the stress. Stress, if undealt with can manifest as mental or physical illness. The last thing you need right now is any illness. You're going to need all the energy you can muster. So make sure you keep on top of your physical health and your mental wellbeing.

We often worry about things that never, ever happen. Worrying about something that never happens wastes time and energy and distracts us from things that should command our attention today. So stop with the 'what ifs'.

Now, what's this all got to do with expat life? So uncertainty and expat life, yep, well, been there, done that. Currently doing that while we wait for my husband's orders! Moving abroad comes with uncertainty, it's part of the territory. Maybe the company says you might be posted overseas, but they don't know for sure, or that you will be posted overseas, but you don't know when, or you don't know how long that posting will last or what you'll do after that. Will you move on when, where and all the other questions that come with moving abroad; schooling, housing, am I going to like it there? Are the kids going to like it there? Is it going to ruin their education? Am I spoiling them forever? And now, of course, will you even be able to get to that country? Or will flights be cancelled again? Will you have to produce some kind of proof of vaccination paperwork? Will you have to quarantine? Will there be another outbreak that shuts all the borders again?

One way to deal with uncertainty in these circumstances is to prepare for the most likely scenario and also plan for other scenarios. So basically have a plan A Plan B, a plan C and all the other letters of the alphabet. If you're somebody that likes planning, this is the best way to do it. It's like practising fire drills. The more that you have in mind, the less stress, the less what if you'll have to deal with just prepare as much as you can with the information that you have right now. It may transpire that you don't need that research, but at the very least, it will be a learning experience.

The reason for planning for all scenarios is because it helps you feel like you are in control of something. And we know that being in control is a Good Thing. It will help you create a level of security that will be helpful for you. There is no such thing as certainty. Life would be pretty boring if we could always predict what was going to happen next. I know that's exactly what we crave right now, but you know I'm right. The only things in life that are certain, as they say, death and taxes.

So do what you can do and don't worry about what you can't do. And most of all, don't let your emotions get carried away worrying about the what ifs. 80 percent of what we worry about doesn't actually happen. So spare yourself those spiralling negative thoughts. Actively tell your brain "stop, do not think like that" and focus onto something completely different.

Acknowledge that you can't have many answers right now and try to let go of as many as you can until the situation is more concrete. Just try to distract yourself, do that mindfulness stuff, do the gratitude stuff, do the meditation stuff, focus on what you can control, like your home and your garden. Start a new absorbing hobby. Release some of the steam from the home life pressure cooker.

Laugh! Dance to loud music, bake a cake. I do both at the same time. It's quite messy! Talk. Talk to strangers if you can. Weirdly, I've found I've had some really deep and reassuring conversations with strangers recently. Sometimes it's easier to offload on someone who is not entirely connected to you and your family.

And I'm here for you, if that's what you need right now. Make sure you do catch up with your friends. Enjoy time with your family, whether that's in real life at home or on Zoom and make sure you get out and embrace the things that you love doing, if at all possible, if not find something else that you love doing.

Work on making yourself more resilient. You're actually living through an historical era. Yeah, it's not a great one, admittedly, but it will be there in future history books. And you are part of it.

You are resilient. You are amazing. Look at what you're doing. Look at what you're coping with! You are incredible. Kindness and optimism plus, resilience is going to get us through all this. And yes, I also mean kindness to yourself.

I want to end with a saying that is credited to Lao Tzu. It says, "If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present."

I'd like you to take that one with you. I'd like you to go and practise some mindful cooking, or just dance around as if nobody's watching.

Uncertainty is a fact of life. We are living uncertain days in uncertain times. Hopefully I've given you a few tips to help you get through them.

If there's anything else you'd like to know, just please do get in touch. Thank you again for being here. Take care.

Get in touch!

Any questions? Drop me an email and I'll get back to you with the answers