If you’re surprised by how disoriented you’re feeling, you’re not alone

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

Many of us have been surprised by our emotions in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This is why you might be feeling so off-kilter right now, according to psychologists.

Feeling unsettled right now? A bit off-kilter? Wishing that we lived in precedented times rather than unprecedented ones? You’re not the only one.

The past week has forced us to face huge changes on a national level, including the appointment of a new prime minister; the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the country’s longest-serving monarch and a symbol of stability for many; and the announcement of a new monarch, King Charles III. 

“Periods of national change are periods of uncertainty,” says Dr Alexa Duff, clinical psychologist at The Gut-Brain Connection. “This will,” she adds, “be compounded by our mind’s capacity to ruminate on how this change will impact us and how it will affect our lives.”

If there’s a common refrain that seems to be cropping up in conversations, whether they’re face to face or online, it’s a general feeling of disorientation; of not knowing quite how to react in the face of change or being surprised by your emotions when you do react. “I’ve never been particularly emotional about stuff like this,” one friend admits. “But this time, I think it’s more unsettling because of the accumulation of everything that has been going on over the past few months. It’s an odd feeling – like everything’s happening at once but you’re also weirdly suspended because of the uncertainty.” 

Queen Elizabeth II has died at the age of 96

Indeed, these reactions might feel so acute because they come amid a period of longer-term upheaval. This summer, we’ve had a drawn out Conservative leadership contest and concerns over the skyrocketing cost of living triggered by the Ofgem energy price cap announcement last month, which left many worrying that they will have to make drastic lifestyle adjustments in order to afford essentials and pay their utility bills.

Though Liz Truss has since announced an energy price freeze, that decision then sparked further concern that higher bills could persist for a decade or longer. Throw a two-and-a-half-year pandemic into the mix and it’s hardly a shock that we’re all feeling so disoriented. Humans aren’t wired to process extended stretches of unpredictability. As Duff puts it, we “are naturally programmed to seek certainty to help [us] to make sense of the world”.

In small doses, uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “As humans, we have a need for both certainty and uncertainty, because life would be very boring if nothing ever changed and evolved,” says psychotherapist Nova Cobban. “But sustained uncertainty is very challenging. We generally find it far easier to manage reality when we know what’s happening, even if what is happening is scary or difficult. You only have to think about what it is like to wait for exam results or hospital results of a scan to know how emotionally challenging uncertainty can be.” 

In the wake of Covid, Cobban adds, there is a compound effect going on: “More layers of uncertainty are being added onto an already difficult period of time; collectively we are still dealing with the shock of the pandemic and the novel and very difficult circumstances that brought.”

The result is that many of us are experiencing future fatigue: “When several difficult experiences happen back to back, your mind starts to use this information to predict the future and it can appear bleak as a result,” says Cobban, which causes us to lose “a sense of hope about the future being different in a positive way”.

We can also start to feel like our lives are being held in suspension (just as many of us felt during lockdown) as we are unable to plan properly, leaving us unsure of how to progress or what to do next, Cobban says. “That takes its toll as we start to imagine worst case scenarios.” 

The impact of uncertainty might also manifest physically, having an impact on our ability to sleep, notes Duff, just like in the early days of Covid 19 when many people were reporting disrupted sleep cycles and strange dreams. This in turn will then have a knock-on effect on your focus and concentration.

It’s against this backdrop that events like the Queen’s death might feel particularly unsettling or might act as a trigger for feelings that have in fact been bubbling below the surface for a while: perhaps this is why social media is awash with voices admitting that they’ve been shocked by their emotional reaction to the news. Cancelled events and upturned plans during the mourning period may result in greater financial uncertainty for some, who may be worrying about work shifts being called off at the last minute or the impact on their business. 

“No one could have accurately predicted that [this] would all happen at a time when many of us already feel emotionally vulnerable and financially unsafe,” Cobban says, adding: “Where there has already been a great deal of change, what we value is certainty and stability. Having change occur in two major establishments at the same time, as we have now, leaves us without an anchor. That can be extremely unsettling, not least because when everything changes around us, it suggests that somehow we too will have to change in response.”

So what can we do to help ourselves feel grounded in the face of overwhelming change? Taking yourself away from the continuous news cycle can help if you find yourself falling back into the habit of doomscrolling, as reading more about things that make you feel unsettled, or about others feeling that way, can just reinforce those feelings of disorientation. “If you pay attention to uncertainty being talked about all the time, your mind can spiral and steal your time and focus,” Cobban says. “It can be very hard to concentrate when we are fearful; fear is designed to ensure we pay attention and so it can draw all of our focus if we let it.” 

As well as limiting your time on social media (“feeding the anxiety” by looking more than once or twice daily is not helpful, Duff advises), it’s important to focus on the aspects of your life that you can actually influence and shape. “Look at what you are spending your time and energy on,” suggests Cobban. “Is it things that you have no control over but greatly concern you or is it things you can actually personally have a beneficial effect on?”

“Place your time and energy on the things you can control… what you watch and read and consume, the time you spend on social media, the relationships you put time into, the new skills you learn, and so much more,” she says. “And remind yourself that this too shall pass.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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