My Therapists Were Right About Uncertainty

Faced with actual, persistent chaos, I’ve realized there was never a way to outpace danger.

Michelle Obama wants to know if I have a plan to vote. The financial-services company hopes I have a plan for retirement. (“Will the world always be this unpredictable?” its paternalistic print ad asks.) My family inquires about the plan for the Thanksgiving menu, and my colleague texts to confirm our after-work plan. It’s a sign of my distress, I think, that my brain hears all these ordinary requests as assaults and responds with a shower-scene scream. No, I do not, my inner self says. I do not have a single freaking plan.

I have always been a planner, a control freak, the kind of person who — not wanting to leave anything to chance — obtains prescription birth control before she has sex for the very first time. I like a destination, a hotel reservation, a meeting place; I like to know what time dinner will be served and who’s going to be there and whether the invitation includes a plus one. I want to find out in advance what kind of coffee maker comes with the share house and whether the deadline is this week or next.

Planning, the neuroscientists tell me, is the brain’s healthy response to uncertainty. When anticipating the future, one’s brain casts back to past experience then recalibrates to anticipate and manage what will come next. It’s hard not to know what the future holds — stressful, the neuroscientists say. Making plans is the evolutionary defense against sudden movements, the proverbial tiger jumping out of the proverbial woods. Humans minimize unknowns to survive. “The better people tune their beliefs about uncertainty, the better they were able to predict future outcomes,” Achim Peters, a German brain researcher, wrote in a journal in 2017. The more our brains are able to absorb, understand, and process our past experience, the better we are at managing the future. That way, in times of uncertainty and threat, you know to build a fence. You make a fire. You write a will. You post a sentinel outside the gate.

No wonder we are all so fucking tired all the time. After a season of uprisings and fires, and a Supreme Court justice sworn in after dark, another Election Day is upon us and a forecast of continued upheaval. (Remember when people used to watch the Weather Channel for fun?) The vaccine will come in December or February or June, and maybe people will take it but maybe they won’t; the city encouraged kids to go to school, but then it encouraged families to keep their kids at home. Fires that started burning in September aren’t yet extinguished, and COVID cases are reaching daily new peaks. Election coverage will almost certainly be an all-night slog and likely inconclusive at that. Pennsylvania, contested and with 20 electoral votes, doesn’t expect to have ballots counted until the end of the week, and who knows what Trump will say or do and which of his cronies will back him up?

I keep thinking about the word “unprecedented” — how until this year it was officious hyperbole, usually applied to some professional or athletic accomplishment. Now no other word describes reality more. Still, my brain has questions. Should my kid sign up for the SATs? Should I keep bottled water in the pantry and gas in my car? Friends mention their own plans — to hoard food, to leave town, to cash out, to buy in, to sit tight, to start something — and I’m filled with panic and dread. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Fatigue is normal, Professor Peters assures. When confronted with an isolated stressful event — “no information, no control, uncertainty with a sense of threat” — the brain turns on, hypervigilant. It wants to sort, prioritize, and develop defensive strategies as efficiently as possible. But if that tiger-in-the trees feeling is not an occasional event, but a constant hum, the brain gets tapped out. Decision-making becomes sluggish or rash.

It’s embarrassing to have to concede that decades of my therapists have been right. I have, for my whole entire life, approached my future with the tiger in mind, anticipating dangers and taking steps. I have devoted billions of brain cells and many midnights to this, making lists and plans and sending emails to defend against personal and professional outcomes I hoped to avoid. This constant prognosticating, which I called “drive,” felt to me like a shrewd strategy, and I harbored the magical belief that it kept me safe. But I was wrong. My condition was diagnosable anxiety, to paraphrase the DSM: excessive worry, most days, about everyday life. Now, faced with actual, persistent chaos, my brain wants to grab a blankie and bail.

My friend pointed me to a Rosh Hashanah sermon given by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, in Brooklyn. In it, she spoke of the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven and a half years. The optimists died first, Stockdale said. They told themselves they would be out by Christmas, and then by Easter, and then by Thanksgiving, and then Christmas rolled around again. Stockdale said they died of broken hearts, but I think maybe they died of exhausted brains, which kept casting backward and forward to imagine solutions or ends to their present horrors that did not corroborate with reality. This is what optimism has in common with anxiety, a distorted view that pretends to be self-protective but is not. Stockdale’s fellow prisoners simply could not imagine Christmas without glad tidings of joy. What Stockdale recommended, instead of wishful thinking, was something more like realism and endurance. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” We will inhabit a future, but we don’t know what kind. I keep thinking about what our children will tell their children about this time, how they couldn’t go to school, how they marched and their parents worried, how the government righted itself, or changed, or fell. However it goes, it will be history — past — and our kids will be telling it because it happened to them.

The people who study anxiety recommend something like Stockdale’s advice — a clear-eyed, present-tense look at the worst that can really happen instead of a frantic, reflexive habit of having expectations and making plans. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I make lists of the uncertainties haunting me, so they will feel both more real and more contained. There are tigers out there, so I will build a fence, but I know that tigers sometimes jump fences.