7 Tips for Reducing Anxiety, Rumination, and Avoidance
Reduce anxiety by learning to tolerate uncertainty.
Posted March 1, 2013 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Researchers have identified "intolerance of uncertainty" as an important cause of anxiety and anxiety disorders.
If you want to reduce rumination, anxious feelings, and avoidance—learn to recognize and tolerate these seven kinds of uncertainty.
1. Learn to tolerate not knowing the reasons for someone else's behavior.
People who are anxious often get stuck in overthinking traps whereby they think over and over about the reasons for other people's actions (e.g., "Why did Patricia act the way she did towards me?” "Why did Mark choose Mary to lead the new team rather than me?")
These thoughts are often intrusive, distracting, and distressing.
The critical point here is that you need to learn to tolerate not knowing the reasons for other people's actions or inaction. People are complicated and we only ever have access to limited information. Therefore, it's often futile to try to know for sure why someone has acted in a certain way.
If you can learn to tolerate not knowing for sure, you'll be able to skip unhelpful rumination. Doing this, and thereby reducing thought intrusions, will make it easier to focus and feel relaxed.
2. Learn to recognize when you're avoiding doing something you want to do because you can't be completely certain of a positive outcome.
This type of avoidance behavior can run the gamut from small things (such as only trying recipes a family member has already tried) to big things (such as avoiding moving house).
Try: taking an inventory of all the things you'd like to do but you're avoiding because you can't be certain of a positive outcome.
3. Learn to delegate.
People who are high in intolerance of uncertainty often resist delegating because they can't be absolutely certain that the person they delegate to will do as good a job as they would do themselves.
For most people, this difficulty with handing off responsibility only applies in pockets of their life rather than in all areas.
Common examples include wanting to hire a cleaner but not doing it, or not letting your spouse do tasks.
Think about: (1) Sometimes the other person will do a better job than you expect, (2) It often doesn't matter if a task is done to a lower standard, and (3) In some circumstances you can put systems in place to reduce errors (for example, giving an employee a checklist of things they need to double check before handing work back to you).
4. Learn to recognize when you're taking too much responsibility for protecting others from possible negative outcomes.
Excessive responsibility taking is another important factor in anxiety. Intolerance of uncertainty and excessive responsibility taking often go hand in hand.
Example: you do too many things for your child or partner because you don't trust them to remember to do things themselves.
Notice when you're trying to protect other people from making errors or protect them from experiencing possible bad outcomes. Evaluate whether this is useful overall.
5. Learn when to stop seeking information and start acting.
People who are intolerant of uncertainty often read masses of information before taking any action because they're trying to feel absolutely certain of (1) how best to proceed, and (2) that their actions will lead to the outcome they want.
For example, reading 10 books about writing a novel before putting pen to paper yourself. Or, reading hundreds of articles about overcoming anxiety before trying any of the suggestions.
If you have this tendency, learn to notice when it's happening and experiment with the idea that trying something yourself is often the best way to accelerate your learning.
6. Learn to recognize when you’re procrastinating getting started due to feeling unsure.
For example, you put off learning new skills on the computer, or you put off decisions related to finances and investing.
Try: talking to yourself kindly about feeling uncertain but still expecting yourself to take some kind of action. You don't need to know all the answers, you just need to take the next logical step.
7. Learn to recognize when you're jumping from one idea to the next due to intolerance of uncertainty.
This tip is most relevant for the business sector.
Anxious people sometimes jump around from one idea to the next because they can never feel absolutely certain that the idea they're currently working on is going to be successful.
Something similar can happen in romantic relationships. People who want certainty sometimes "keep one foot out of the boat" in their relationships because they struggle with not feeling absolutely certain if the relationship is right.
Pay attention to whether these patterns keep happening to you. Sometimes a cue to change direction is a valid instinct but repeated patterns may be more related to intolerance of uncertainty.
The trap for people with intolerance of uncertainty is that sometimes behaviors like overthinking, doing extra checking, seeking extra information, and taking excessive responsibility do help prevent things going wrong. Look at whether, on balance, these things help you or whether they mostly just perpetuate your stress and anxiety, hold you back, and cause problems in your relationships. You can then make adjustments based on your own assessment.
Want more tips for reducing anxiety, rumination, and avoidance? Purchase my book, The Anxiety Toolkit. You can get an email alert whenever I write a new post if you subscribe.