The Stress of Uncertainty

2020 has evoked a sense of fear and anxiety like we’ve never seen before. As the world grapples with how to respond to the pandemic, the hospitality industry has been hit especially hard. Leaders and employees are realigning to new operational and safety requirements, but the challenges they face are not limited to a reduced revenue stream.

You’re open.

You’re closed.

Pivot to take-out?

25% dining capacity.

Increase room service?

Let employees go.

Bring employees back.

We are creatures of habit. We like to feel in control. But when life throws a curveball, the uncertainty of the outcome is more stressful than knowing something bad is going to happen. Think about being stuck in a traffic jam on your way to an important appointment.  The closer you get to that point where you have a 50/50 chance of making it on time, the more stressed you get.  Once you realize that there is no chance you’ll make it, the stress subsides.  It’s not the negative outcome that eases your stress; it’s the certainty.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the

oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

The brain’s primary job isn’t to think; the brain’s primary job is to keep us alive.   Because survival is the neural priority, the brain is always scanning the environment for potential threats. This is why uncertainty is so unsettling.  It doesn’t know how to protect us from the unknown.

There is no question that there will be more challenges ahead.  Remember: you can’t pour from an empty cup.  For your sake and for the sake of your family, friends, and coworkers who count on you, here are a few strategies to help you keep the stress of uncertainty in check.

  1. Increase your sense of control by finding choices. It’s easy to get caught in the negative feedback loop of the unknowns. Focus on that which you can control. Daily intentional acts of kindness, healthy diet, and regular exercise will all help you increase your sense of control and will disrupt the negative thought cycle.
  2. Connect with others who care about you. We are social creatures who are wired to connect.  Schedule coffee, lunch, or a weekend walk with someone you trust.  Put it on your calendar so that you can actually see something positive ahead and take your focus off the stress of the uncertainties.
  3. Look for opportunities to contribute. One of the best ways to reclaim a sense of control is to find ways to give your time or your talents to something bigger than yourself.  All of us want to know that what we do matters. Find a way to make a difference to someone else and you’ve doubled the ROI of your efforts.

The bottom line is that we cannot totally eliminate stress from our lives… nor should we. Our stress radar is what keeps us alive. But we can learn how to weather uncertainty more  effectively.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is a keynote speaker, best-selling author, and self-proclaimed neuroscience geek. She is the author of Happy Hour with Einstein, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round, and the companion Happier Hour Gratitude Journal – all designed to help people learn how the brain works and how to make it work better. As a keynote speaker delivering to a wide range of audiences – from teachers in the classroom to executives in the boardroom – Melissa combines her vast experience in marketing communications with extensive research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology to inspire people to tap into their inner genius for extraordinary results.