I recently moved to a new apartment, an occasion that calls for celebration—preferably outdoors in my brand-new backyard. But I didn’t expect how much being in a different space would disrupt my sense of safety. So I worried—about my cat escaping out the front door, how to protect my family from COVID, raccoon-transmitted diseases, and more.
After reading Elaine Fox’s new book Switch Craft: The Hidden Power of Mental Agility, I have a better idea of what’s going on. I fall into the category of someone who’s uncomfortable with uncertainty. I love a good routine, and moving disrupted all of mine. I have a need to feel in control of my circumstances, but just about everything in my immediate surroundings changed.
Maybe you fit this description, too, and you have trouble coping when life is full of unknowns or when things don’t turn out as you expected. According to Fox, what we need to cultivate is mental agility—a nimbleness in how we think, feel, and act that will allow us to adapt to changing circumstances.
Feeling uncomfortable with uncertainty
Uncertainty arises when we’re in new situations, like a move or a new job, or when we’re in unpredictable situations—like when we have a job interview, a medical test, an injury, or the possibility of layoffs at work.
Because our brains are future-predicting machines, it’s natural to want to avoid ambiguity. “As human beings, we crave security, and that is why all of us are intolerant of uncertainty to some extent,” writes Fox.
But some have this tendency more than others. For example, you might be intolerant of uncertainty if you love planning, hate surprises, and get frustrated when unexpected things mess up your day. Someone who has trouble with uncertainty might find it hard to make decisions in ambiguous circumstances, because they feel like they don’t have enough information and don’t want to make the wrong choice.
To avoid the discomfort of uncertainty, some of us engage in what Fox calls “safety behaviors”—things like making lots of lists, constantly double checking, overpreparing, or seeking reassurance from others. For example, you might read a restaurant menu in advance, or repeatedly check in on your kid to make sure they’re doing OK.
If you dislike uncertainty, you might also be a worrier, because worrying actually gives us a sense of control in a difficult situation—at least we’re doing something! You might also shy away from challenges that you could fail at, and lean on tried-and-true pathways in life.
The power of mental agility
To get more comfortable with uncertainty, we need to practice what Fox calls mental agility, or what psychologists call psychological flexibility. Research suggests that people who are more psychologically flexible have higher well-being and tend to be less anxious and worried.
Someone who is psychologically flexible is open to change, or may even find change exciting. When they’re working on a problem, they try lots of different solutions. They don’t see the world in black and white, they like to learn from others, and they often have some unusual ideas of their own.
Mental agility shines when we’re facing change, when things don’t go as expected, or when the future is particularly unpredictable—like, say, when travel plans fall through, going through a divorce, or in a pandemic. At that moment, some people dig their heels in and keep doing what they’ve always done. But mentally agile people are able to recognize when what they’re doing isn’t working, and change things up.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any of life’s problems,” writes Fox.
She likes the metaphor of using different clubs on a golf course, depending on whether you’re hitting a long shot, swinging from a bunker, or putting. “Life is exactly like that—we’re going to be faced with quite different types of problems and different types of obstacles to get around, and we need different approaches for all of those.”
It comes down to the choice of stick or switch: Should I keep pursuing the same thoughts, feelings, and actions, or do I need to switch to something new?
For example, she says, parents need a veritable smorgasbord of strategies to raise their children, everything from tough discipline and strict boundaries to treating kids to ice cream and a day off. Knowing when to use which one is a sign of healthy flexibility. The same goes for leaders at work, who might want to change the way they manage their employees when the company is going through a season of stress.
Coping strategies are another good example. Psychologists like to group them into two main types: emotion-focused and problem-focused. Emotion-focused strategies change the way we feel, like distracting ourselves, getting support from friends, or looking at the situation from a different perspective. Problem-focused strategies, on the other hand, involve taking action to solve the problem directly.
No one strategy works all the time, and you’ll often see people get stuck in their favorite way of coping. If you tend toward distraction and denial, you might avoid dealing with a problem that you actually could have solved; if you’re an inveterate problem-solver, you might feel helpless and angry when confronting a problem—or a loved one’s—that has no solution, when all that’s really needed is support and connection.
How to cultivate mental agility
Fox’s book is full of tips to cultivate mental agility, as well as other related skills that can help you roll with the punches in life. Here are a few that felt most practical and new to me.
Surrender to transitions. When something changes in your life—you leave a job, end a relationship, or lose someone you love—recognize that you’re now in a transition. Transitions take time to move through, and they can’t be rushed. Your identity (as an employee, partner, or friend, perhaps) will have to shift and change, as well. Be kind and accepting, and don’t expect too much of yourself as you struggle through this time.
Prepare for change in advance. Sometimes change is unexpected, and other times you see it coming. When you anticipate a big change in life, spend some time exploring your feelings around it. You can list all the ways your life will change, and identify the ones that are causing you anxiety. Give yourself the opportunity to mourn what you will leave behind, but also devote some of your attention to new opportunities that you’re excited about.
Seek out small uncertainties. You can build up your tolerance for uncertainty, Fox explains, by gradually exposing yourself to it on purpose. For example, you could reach out to an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while, try bargaining for an item you want to buy, or check social media less frequently.
Change up your perspective. One way to do this is to find something small that annoys you, and try to see the silver lining to it. For example, maybe your commute got longer, but that means you have extra time to listen to podcasts.
When you’re facing a problem, you could change your perspective by brainstorming a handful of solutions, rather than trying to figure out the perfect correct one. Or make list of people you admire, and ask yourself: What would they do in your place?
Ask a different question. When life is hard, we often find ourselves harping on “why” questions: “Why is this happening to me?” In those moments, Fox suggests letting go of the “why” and asking “how” instead: “How can I change this situation?” Or perhaps you’re already asking a “how” question, but the wrong one: Instead of “How do I stop working so much?,” she explains, try an easier question: “How can I find time to go to the gym?”
Move past worry. Repetitive worrying is one of the most common rigid thought patterns we get stuck in. To break free from it, identify whether the problem you’re worrying about is solvable or not—and take action if you can. If there’s nothing you can do, Fox suggests recording yourself talking in detail about your worries, and then listening to the recording repeatedly until your worries don’t have as much of a hold on you.
It’s been about two months since my move, and my brain has calmed down about all the changes. (Surrender to transitions—got it.) I definitely see the appeal of being someone who moves through life agilely and with curiosity, letting things happen as they may and feeling confident I’ll figure out how to deal with them. Lists gripped tightly in hand, I have trouble ever imagining myself that way.
But Fox’s book helped put a name and an explanation on something I struggle with, so at least I have a goal to aspire to. Since reading it, I have noticed my knee-jerk resistance to plans changing or doing things someone else’s way, and I have been able to let go. I doubt anyone will ever call me spontaneous and easygoing, but at least I can make a point to expect the unexpected in life.