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Embracing Uncertainty

By Colleen O’Boyle, assistant head of school for academic affairs
The assistant head of school for academic affairs reflects on the comfort of predictability.

In March, it will be one year since the pandemic has impacted our lives. Over the arc of this time, we have been given a healthy dose of uncertainty. For some, this spoonful of uncertainty has taken the shape of fears about the pandemic, loss, isolation, concerns about job security, political divisions and social unrest. Uncertainty can be paralyzing if we let it, and it can also be freeing. It can be revolutionary if we know how to respond to it. Day-to-day uncertainty can be sustained, while perhaps the chronic sense of unpredictability can feel downright crippling. 

Stress researcher Robert Sapolsky has extensive work on the power of a sense of control in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, summarizing essential guidance to controlling our stress responses. In chapter 13, Sapolsky speaks to psychological distress, particularly how a bioengineer views the body’s response to stress and uncertainty, unlike their peers in the field, a biologist or physiologist. They “view the body a bit like the circuitry diagram that you get with a radio: input-output ratios, impedance, feedback loops, servomechanisms. I shudder even to write such words, as I barely understand them; but the bioengineers did wonders for the field, adding a tremendous vigor.” In particular, they uncovered how the brain measures levels of glucocorticoids in the bloodstream and the rate at which it changes, asking whether the stress-response is linear or an all-or-nothing response. The distinction between the two is quite significant. 

When an organism is subjected to a painful experience, a stress response is triggered, but it’s different in different people. Some show little to no response and carry on, while others perhaps feel a sense of paralysis. In some cases, the distinction is the support system and/or psychological strength of the individual. Sapolsky says, “Two identical stressors with the same extent of allostatic disruption can be perceived, can be appraised differently, and the whole show changes from there.” Rest assured, this claim has come with quite a bit of debate. So, for our community, let’s dig in. Pre-COVID. 

Pre-COVID provided our community with various, wonderful and curated options to manage our stress and uncertainty: connecting with others, playing on a sports team, performing onstage, pitching an entrepreneurial idea, and maybe even kicking a punching bag with a coach. We now find ourselves stressed without these same outlets to manage our stress, which inevitably leads to frustration. 

My 4 ½-year-old son reminds my husband and me, his ever so zen parents, to think of Daniel Tiger’s song to regulate our response system. Just count to four. Well, it turns out, Daniel knows a thing or two about outlets to help our bodies respond best. When we get stressed, build a set of blocks that one has to climb before you really embrace that stress. Count to four. Walk away. Imagine a different response.

Even though we are separated from our loved ones, take the time to connect with them about something non-COVID. Social-support networks are very impactful, even for the introverts out there. Studies show that when primates face stress, they are more likely to persevere when supported by friends and family. The more social support we receive from trusted peers, adults and/or loved ones is paramount to how we handle uncertainty. 

In my household, we talk about everything, even when we really don’t want to. Often at dinner time, we ask, “What was your highlight, spotlight and lowlight of the day?” allowing everyone at the table to share something great, name something that was tough or frustrating, and identify something that one looks forward to despite whether it will be enjoyable or not. It’s nice to name things, allowing your support system to know what we carry or wish to get rid of. We also talk about the comfort of predictability and how it isn’t as likely these days.

Perhaps this is where we come back full circle to how we respond to stress and uncertainty. When we can predict something, it’s less stressful. Perhaps we haven’t quite gotten used to the restrictions and hamper that COVID-19 has presented, but I bet we have gotten better at responding to it. There is little use in trying to predict when it will all cease, yet a more effective response is to let go of our sense to control the outcome and learn how to live, temporarily, in a new flawed, awakened and beautiful world.


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