From the President: Reflections on Ambiguity in an Anxious, Unprecedented Time

Ambiguity, noun

Def: doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention

Dear MSP Community,

I think of you every day. I miss your smiling facings, the busy atrium, the smell of coffee and pizza wafting through the building.

I wonder how your families are doing, how those with small children are coping, how you’re managing to take care of elderly parents and grandparents. And I’m indescribably sad for those of you who have lost loved ones and friends, and at a time when supporting one other is so incredibly difficult.

I also face many of these concerns, but am fortunate that I can continue to work while others cannot. Yet keeping things moving forward in a pandemic has its challenges. One of the most difficult things for me is making decisions with very little hard knowledge of what the future holds. Like many of you, I struggle with the ambiguity of where we’ll be even 3 months from now, let alone next year. That’s not how I like to operate; but who does?!

Yet move forward we must, even in the absence of information or the ability to plan with certainty. To guard against becoming immobile, I remind myself I can only do the best I can under extraordinary circumstances. Every decision made, every policy and process created or revised, is done with positive intent and based on the best information available day to day and even hour to hour.  I’m hopeful that these decisions will be advantageous to most, yet am acutely aware that in some cases the outcome may not be so great.

One thing that has not changed amid this pandemic is MSP’s commitment to help students meet their individual goals while maintaining program requirements that allow for successful graduation and licensure in Michigan. If you’re one of those individuals who is negatively impacted by a process change related to the current crisis, please reach out to the same staff that serves you on campus; they’re working and ready to help you remotely. What helps me during this anxiety-provoking time is picking up the phone or drafting an email to get answers directly from the source. I hope you will do that, too.

To help us manage our anxiety, we search for answers: What will the fall semester look like? When can I go back to my clinical training site? When will we once again see construction on our new building? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are dependent upon so many things that are out of our control.

That’s where ambiguity comes into play. Many of us struggle with not knowing and not being able to plan for the future. If I allow it to happen, my anxiety will quickly spin out of control, exacerbated by my inability to provide answers to your questions. But as we in the psychology profession know – at least intellectually – we can make choices as to how we manage our anxiety.

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic that helped me better understand the brain-based relationship between anxiety and ambiguity. As with most, things, our responses to ambiguous situations differ by individual. The article states,  

 “As a rule, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely get an electric shock now than maybe be shocked later, and show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one. Where people differ is in the degree to which uncertainty bothers them… So not knowing what to do, not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing what other people are thinking and feeling—these situations are ripe to breed anxiety in anyone, depending on how well they’re able to tolerate uncertainty.”

I cope by recalling life experiences that have taught me how to better tolerate uncertain times. I call upon the skills I learned as a student at MSP to deal with what is essentially an existential crisis at this time. While we may be quarantined with others, we must each learn how to individually adapt to the unknown. I tell myself that most of us are facing the same challenges, that there will be an eventual outcome. And at this time of uncertainty I am certain of one thing: that whatever the outcome, we will not only survive, we will thrive, whatever the future holds.

I hope you can rest assured in the knowledge that all of us behind the scenes at MSP are committed to informing ourselves with the best information available, following the Governor’s guidelines, and monitoring for best practices on how to proceed at the end of this period of struggle. Each decision is data driven and made after a painstaking process of discussion and deliberation between me, Vice President Diane Zalapi, Academic Dean Dr. Shannon Chávez-Korell, Dean of Student Services Amanda Ming, Clinical Training Director Dr. Heidi Martin, and Clinic Director Dr. Jim Maher. 

In the meantime, here is an excellent article recommended by Dr. Chávez-Korell, 7 Science-Based Strategies to Cope with Coronavirus Anxiety. I hope you and those in you circle of family and friends find it helpful; I did.

In health and community,

Dr. Brown

Find reliable information on the MSP COVID-19 Closure Resources page.