Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Uncertainty, Anxiety, Indecision, and Procrastination

How to conquer anxiety over uncertainty

You can’t avoid unknowns and uncertainties. These conditions are as much a part of life as are death and taxes. You can’t accurately know the future or outcome of your efforts to unravel uncertainties. However, you can predict what you can and will do to overcome your fears of uncertainty.

How you approach conditions of uncertainty suggests whether you feel threatened or challenged. Let’s say that you see gaining clarity as a challenge. If your actions lead to clarity, that is a positive result.

If you see many conditions of uncertainty as threatening to your stability, you might feel anxious over uncertainty. Anxiety over uncertainty is more than feeling apprehensive about something you haven’t tried before, or wariness about venturing into unfamiliar territory. A persistent anxiety over uncertainty drains time and resources without yielding healthy benefits. This state of thought, feelings, and action is a catalyst for inhibitions or impulsive decisions. 

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When anxiety over uncertainty interferes with your enlightened goals and interests, you might feel like you are floating in a sea of uncertainty, and whipped about by waves. Here are three recognizable waves:

1. You dread facing circumstances where there are complexities and uncertainties and where you believe you have a lot at stake and where you believe you may not do well enough at unraveling the puzzle.

2. You experience self-doubts as you hesitate with indecision.

3. You procrastinate until you have a guarantee that you are safe to act. That proves to be a long wait.  (This is like temporarily putting yourself in the eye of a storm. However, the waves don't disappear.)

How do you stop feeling anxious about uncertainty in situations that you view as ambiguous, complex, or filled with unknowns? Let’s look at a sample of anxiety over uncertainty situations. Then, I’ll share some ideas about how thinking about uncertainty can lead to anxiety. Then I’ll describe a five-step proactive coping method to combat anxiety over uncertainty thinking, feelings, and actions.

Uncertainty Situations

Anxiety over uncertainty can surface in different situations. Here are five:

1. You have two romantic partners and you truly care for both. You feel terrified at the thought of making a big mistake by picking one over the other, or by dropping both.  You wait for more information. At the same time, you know that if you don’t make a choice, you will lose both.

2. You have a choice between returning to college and sticking with your current dead-end job. You don’t know for sure that you’ll succeed in college. You know you’ll succeed at the job.

3. An acquaintance invites you to a party. You don’t know who will be there. You know you feel awkward when meeting strangers.

4. You purchase a camera with many complicated features. You don’t know how to use most of them.  You feel anxious about fumbling and feeling inept as you try to figure out the new features.  

5. You don’t know why you are here on earth. You are unsure about what is meaningful for you to do.   

Each sample situation has its own unique features. For example choosing between romantic partners is different from trying to find your place in the universe. However, anxiety over uncertainty conditions can share common features, such as an anxiety about committing yourself to one person, or committing yourself to a specific direction in life. In both cases, you may feel petrified about making a mistake.

Feeding Anxiety over Uncertainty

It’s helpful to know core features that can cut across different anxieties over uncertainty. Match your experiences against the following four sample dynamics. Which ones fit?

1. You dwell on fictional dangers, such as unfounded—possibly unknown--perils to your emotional security and self-image.

2. You think that because you are unsure about what to do, you are unable to cope well enough.  (If you believed that you could cope with uncertainty, you probably wouldn’t feel anxious.)

3. You act indecisive and procrastinate on engaging in activities to reduce uncertainty. For example, do you tell yourself that you need more information and will get to it later?

4. You prioritize safe activities over challenging, beneficial, important, or appealing new experiences.

There is no universal solution where one corrective method fits all anxieties over uncertainty. Nevertheless, you have to start somewhere if you intend to decrease anxiety over uncertainty. Let’s start with proactive coping.

Five Proactive Coping Steps

In proactive coping, you prepare yourself to cope in order to reduce, prevent, or intervene to curb anxiety over uncertainty.  Here are some sample proactive coping steps:

Step 1: In upcoming situations, where your information is incomplete, accept ambiguity and uncertainty as a natural part of living and learning. You won't see the complete picture until you engage the challenge. You’ll learn more by taking action than by waiting for a guarantee.

Step 2: Decide what, when, and how you'll proactively cope. Pick your most pressing area where you risk acting indecisively. That’s your what.  Pick a time to start proactively coping. That’s your when.  Identify what you'll do first, and then what you’ll do next. This is the how. Plan to adjust what you do as you go.

Step 3: Think about high probability things that can get in your way, such as anxiety thinking where you tell yourself that you can’t cope with uncertainty. Come up with a plan for each impediment. Then test the plan against reality. For example, one way to combat anxiety over uncertainty is to make an uncertainty estimate. Ask yourself, what is the probability of one thing happening over another? If you don’t have an answer, then ask another question: “What healthy purpose is served by tormenting myself over something that will take time to understand?” (Hint, there is probably no healthy purpose.)

Step 4: Build momentum for resolving uncertainties by intentionally engaging in meaningful problems that have complexities and unknowns. Anything reasonable where the process and outcome are in doubt will do. Decide where you’ll start, then start (you have to take the first step before you can take a second).

Step 5: Remind yourself that you are doing this exercise to train yourself to stop hesitating, develop a factual basis for deciding new steps to reduce uncertainty, and get yourself out of a procrastination trap.

For more self-help ideas, methods, and exercises to prepare yourself to overcome anxiety over uncertainty, click on The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.   To help yourself stop procrastinating on developing coping skills, click on The Procrastination Workbook.

 © Dr. Bill Knaus

All rights reserved

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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