Tuesday, October 12, 2021
University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics

What is ambiguity? Merriam-Webster defines it as “something that does not have a single clear meaning.” When something is ambiguous, our minds can’t make sense of it; we find it confusing. For example, if you ask a former boss to recommend you for a new job and in response they send an email saying, “I can’t recommend you highly enough,” there are at least two ways of interpreting that. You might end up puzzling over the meaning.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have taken a master class on living with ambiguity. We have had to pivot repeatedly, making many adjustments day after day and week after week. There have been challenges and opportunities during this time.

In grappling with pandemic ambiguity, I have started to think of this time as “blursed.” Blursed is a combination of “blessed” and/or “cursed”—things that bring joy and comfort but also bother, confuse, or threaten us, which, in part, epitomizes the past 1.5 years. What do we do with this curse/blessing mashup?

As a clinical psychologist at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, I have been noticing people no longer know how to respond when asked “How are you doing?” Nobody can quite get their heads around the ever evolving newness. It’s ambiguous, and it just keeps changing. We prefer predictability and stability, and prolonged uncertainty has taken a toll on us.

What have we learned from this prolonged living with ambiguity? It differs for each of us. Here are five lessons to share:

  1. Don’t plan too far ahead; stay in the moment. In early 2020, we couldn’t make plans. It seemed everything was canceled. Then things got better. Then they got worse again. Thus, many people are embracing “the moment” more than they did in the past. Being more mindful and fully present is harder to do when we are constantly rushing from one thing to another.
  2. Celebrate the positive things in life, large or small. Spend time noticing and acknowledging things that are good or beautiful. Share them if you can. Tell someone else about it, take a picture, make eye contact and say thank you. For example, I have a friend who frequently posts pictures of the sunset on Facebook, which makes me smile. Paying attention to the beauty in the world reminds us that even in the worst of times, not everything is bad. Remember that your world is colored by the things you pay attention to, and that you can shift your mood by shifting your perspective.
  3. Take care of yourself. We’ve all read news articles about the increases in unhealthy behaviors during the pandemic, such as increased drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and racism. It is important for us to be honest with ourselves about our behaviors and actions. If we are giving in to anger or hate, it is important to get some help with these issues. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, such as talking to others, exercising, relaxing, engaging in a hobby, doing something that makes you smile or laugh, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are all ways to take care of yourself.
  4. Be kind to others. Small kindnesses help everyone feel less alone. For example, holding a door, making a donation to a food bank, or letting someone into your lane in traffic are small ways to show caring for others. There is a saying, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is important to remember, especially now.
  5. Push for equity and justice. Speak up for people whose voices are not heard. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but especially people in populations that are historically and systematically marginalized. For example, students with special needs were especially impacted by the disruptions in schooling, such as online, hybrid, or a combination of programming. Experts say that we may not know for many years the exact toll the pandemic has had on these students. In general, people with fewer resources have had fewer choices about things often taken for granted. While some of us were looking for toilet paper at Hy-Vee or watching “Tiger King” on Netflix, countless others were trying to get their most basic human and needs met.

The bottom line is that life will remain confusing for some time. Even though we do not have control over everything, we can recognize that when life seems “blursed” there are things we can do to put the emphasis on feeling blessed rather than cursed, such as living in the moment, noticing and acknowledging positives, taking care of ourselves, being kind to others, acknowledging racism and other inequities in our society and personally taking steps to educate and correct things that are unfair, demanding and engaging in greater equity and justice for everyone, and working toward a stable, non-ambiguous, and better future for all.


For additional resources, consider the following:

Mobile Crisis Outreach / Iowa Help Line: 24-hour availability

  • If you are in emotional distress or experiencing a mental health crisis and would like to speak to a mental health professional right away, you can request Mobile Crisis Outreach. Counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and arrive within one hour to your home or other location. Counselors respond in teams of two, and there is always at least one master’s level mental health professional.
    • Call or text 1-855-800-1239 or visit iowacrisischat.org.  Ask for "Mobile Crisis Outreach."
      • Texting 1-855-800-1239 is available from 2 p.m. - 2 a.m. daily. Text helpers will still have you call hotline for Mobile Crisis Outreach services.
      • Anyone can call: the person who needs help, a medical provider, family, friend, etc.
  • Note:  Mobile Crisis Outreach is available to residents of Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Delaware, Dubuque, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, and Linn counties.


Johnson County Crisis Center: 24-hour availability

  • Call 319-351-0140 or visit: iowamobileclinic.org/johnson-county-crisis-center.
    • Call, text message or chat/instant message 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to get support during any type of crisis.
  • The center is located at 1121 Gilbert Ct Iowa City, IA.
  • Services provided include emotional support, crisis outreach, emergency food and financial assistance through Food Bank (separate hours).


University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics

  • As always, if you need help, you may call the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics at any time at 319-356-1616. There is always a psychiatry resident on call or available in the Emergency Treatment Center.


Other Crisis Resources

  • Helplines for those considering suicide:  1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Helplines if you (or anyone you know) have domestic violence concerns or have questions about domestic violence:  1-800-373-1043 or 319-351-1043.