On Being Uncertain But Not Unsettled


Once again I kicked off the Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers conference, this time to 5,600 educators and parent-educators this past Friday. My topic was Fear of the Unknown.


Uncertainty is Like the Weather

There's no use getting upset about the weather; nobody's upset can change it. Weather is simply something that exists in your life, and whether the forecast is grim or spectacular, your mood or mindset doesn't affect it. This scenario isn't without consequence, however, as if you're upset or unsettled, you're likely not in a position to think clearly and act skillfully. That's the real problem with fear of the unknown; you're afraid. You are, as they say, in . . . fear. You're in it.


The Antidote to Fear of the Unknown

There's so much we don't know and can't know, and that reality isn't going anywhere, so beginning with acceptance of that reality is a good starting place. Next, there are things we can do to dissolve or lessen our fear—that's a reality too. So let's embrace that and get to it!


Fear can quickly become all-encompassing. Any emotion, sensation, thought, or sound is all-encompassing if that's all you're paying attention to. If you've been reading this blog or you know a bit about mindfulness or practice it, you can probably guess what's coming—shifting your attention away from the unknown and to the known. And there's no known more powerful than your present experience, through your sensory pathways.


Fear or no fear, you can use this strategy with your kids or on your own, to ground your experience in the present and name what you know. You might think your kids or your partner know that you love them, but they might not feel that in the way you think they do or want them to. We're going for certainty here, hence the senses, which can be felt only in the present.


The Added Bonus: Choice and Agency

The Sensory Countdown accomplishes two things:


1) It moves the neural activity to the prefrontal cortex, which first must remember the five senses in the countdown—and that can be surprisingly challenging when you're in a fear-spiral. Next, the brain has to find the appropriate descriptive language for your experience. This is all happening at the expense of feeling the fear of the unknown. You cannot be 100% fearful when you're identifying and describing things around you. A percentage of the activity necessary for the fear gets allocated to the countdown.


2) The countdown shifts the focus from the future (fear is future-focus) to the present. Again, the root cause of fear of the unknown is attention. Shift the attention, and the fear decreases.


The Sensory Countdown is composed of choices. You're demonstrating your agency by taking control and moving your attention away from the fear. You're choosing to describe one thing over another. Attention is perhaps the most important skill you can cultivate, and for much deeper reasons that it might seem at first. As psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist wrote in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided brain and the making of the western world (Yale University Press, 2019),


Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it…. Attention has consequences (p. 133).

Sensory Countdown Tips

  • Describe what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste, as vividly as you can.

  • Resist the temptation to create stories around your experience.

  • Resist the temptation to think about your experience.

  • When storying or other thinking happens, bring your attention back to what your actual sensory experience is, in the moment.

When you begin to understand what attention feels like in your mind and body, you realize that being upset and unsettled are matters of attention. And fortunately, you can learn to redirect your attention, with practice.


Join me! Classes begin January 5.


Have a peaceful day.


mm