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Riding the waves: How to cope with uncertainty

“Give up to grace. The ocean takes care of each wave until it gets to shore. You need more help than you know.” Rumi, Words of Paradise: Selected Poems of Rumi

I managed to get away this summer. Not on the trip I had planned – a long-booked road trip up the east coast of the USA with a friend back in June, which I gave up hope for as the pandemic took hold in the spring. But instead I went on a British replacement, to a bit of coast I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what to expect but then it’s 2020 – perhaps I had accepted that as part of life, for now.

And I felt lucky to be getting away at all. Uncertainty is a fundamental part of life. Perhaps in more placid times we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control, that life is sorted. The pandemic has shone a revealing light on those fallacies.

It took a few days of being away for the landscape to start to shape me, to seep into my open cracks after months of stress, of watching rolling news updates, invasive phone alerts. I woke up one morning and knew that I had to cancel the plans I had for that day – a trip up the coast to a nearby town - and just head out along the beach where I was, walking the beautiful paths on the shore. As I walked I felt the sound of the sea softly lapping on sand, or breaking on unseen escarpments beneath the calm surface. The rhythms of the water settled within me and became a part of my being, a regular reminder that despite pandemics and economic chaos, the sea keeps its time, ebbs and flows.

I didn’t think too much, consciously, about anything for those last few days of the holiday. I walked, and I clambered over rocky parts of the shoreline, or I responded to the need to dip my toes in the cold (‘refreshing’) North Sea. Life felt very simple: Where’s the next meal, is there a public toilet nearby, ah that pub looks nice for a break. It was a far cry from the worries, the plans and concerns that life has thrown at most of us over the past few months.


Now I’m back at my desk, feeling relaxed and facing things anew. But I’m beginning again to think, to wonder what the next few months hold. Most conversations I have with friends and colleagues reflect on how things have eased, become more normal for many of us (though for many of people who are shielding for their own or anothers’ health, that is not the case). But we’re all aware that even the slips of normality that we’re currently experimenting with – holidays, working, meals out, train travel – could be snatched away at a local or national level.

We face an autumn and winter beset by unknowns and anxieties: We’ve been through the spring, and we know what that was like. But as Covid cases rise again in different countries, what will we face here in the UK? And what will it be like in a season of indoors, of the cold and rain, of flu and hospitals already busy?

While daunting, facing uncertainty and accepting its presence in our lives can be a powerful source of strength and courage, allowing us to grow in our personal and professional lives, to take risks and discover new things about ourselves, those we love, and the world. It’s well worth it – and now is the time to flex that muscle.

Taking those walks by the sea as my starting point, here are some thoughts about coping strategies for the anxiety and uncertainties of the coming months and how to embrace uncertainty:

- When anxiety rises, it can be hard not to be swept up. As you feel the signs of rising stress, take time out to ground yourself. Take deep breaths – count to 3 or 4 as you breath in, and 4 or 5 as you breath out. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system which calms us.

- Listen, look or touch. Tuning into our senses grounds us in the present moment (this is the basis of mindfulness practices). Take a moment to go outdoors if you can. Listen to the birds, the wind or neighbours talking. Touch the grass or a tree and feel it between your fingers – what does it feel like, or remind you of? Look around you and notice what is there, what has changed.

- Recognise your anxieties, that they are legitimate, and that uncertainty is scary. Then phone a good friend and talk about what’s on your mind. Or write it down. Naming our fears takes away much of their power and gives us space to examine them, accommodate them, and move forward in whatever way we need to.

- If you can, take time out. A week, a day, a half-hour walking the dog. These are valuable moments of reflection and relaxation that give us a wider perspective.

As we all face an uncertain autumn and winter, I will be returning to the unexpected gift of that time by the sea and its calming swell. It was not the break I planned or thought I wanted, but it was exactly what I needed. Embracing the new and uncertain can, sometimes, help us see.

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