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5 Tips to Help You Live With Uncertainty

...and learn to love what you don't know.

Change is inevitable—whether you like it or not. Just as change is inevitable, so is the uncertainty that is sure to follow. Uncertainty is that strange, uncomfortable, in-between feeling when you are no longer in familiar territory and yet don’t know what lies ahead. The good news is that uncertainty is a recognizable stage in the process of moving from the familiar through the unknown to the next place you’re supposed to be.

Even when a change has been anticipated, there may be a sense of giving something up or letting something go that may feel like a loss. Without the familiar and habitual to rely upon, you may feel cut off and out of control. That’s where uncertainty comes in, so much so that you may question whether it’s better to make the change or to stay with what you already know.

What often follows is a feeling of discomfort—distress, uneasiness and/or anxiety. This is the critical phase where you make the decision to either move on to the next stage and the possibilities it brings or retreat in fear back to what is familiar.

If you complete the process of change, you’ll eventually gain understanding and insight about why this change and the uncertainty it brought along with it was necessary. The point is that having a sense of what to expect along the way and an understanding that this process and the accompanying emotions are normal even if you feel uncomfortable will help keep you moving in the right direction. Eventually, the reason for the change becomes clear and a sense of control is restored.

So, how do you live with what you don’t know? Here are five tips to help you live through uncertainty.

1. Uncertainty is a certain thing. All of life has at least a bit of uncertainty attached to it and sometimes a lot of uncertainty that may take a very long time to resolve. You cannot know how everything is going to unfold. Even things you feel so sure of and dependent upon can change. People get caught up in the idea of things lasting “forever.” But they frequently don’t.

Being aware of the possibility that things can change can help you to cope if things happen that you didn’t expect. It’s not that you need to live in fear of things changing and ending but being prepared for the possibility can help you be more resilient and flexible when things do happen.

2. Zero in on what you can control. Even while you’re going through change and uncertainty there are many pieces of your life you can count on to stay stable and reliable. Identify the aspects you can control and use them as a framework to build the rest of your life around.

Establish a daily routine that helps you move through your day. The habitual and familiar will help you feel more grounded in your life even when things feel up in the air. The habitual and routine provide a safety net, something to help you feel your life is not in freefall.

In addition to the daily routine, create moments and events that help you enjoy your life as it is. No sense sitting around terrified about the future. That will sort itself out. Stay positive and hopeful that somehow things will work out, even if you have no idea how that will happen.

3. Embrace the idea of many possibilities. Sometimes, the change is very specific and brings a very specific outcome. But often, change brings many options and opportunities; for example, moving away from where you live will inevitably include a totally new location, home, job/career, school, community, relationships, etc.

Suspend expectations. Having specific expectations of what should happen is often not realistic. When you expect a certain outcome, you are setting yourself up to be frustrated and disappointed if things don’t work out the way you had hoped they would. When you allow for many possibilities to happen, you prevent yourself from staying attached to living life in a narrow way. As you open up to new external possibilities, you open yourself up to exploring new aspects of yourself.

4. Watch the thoughts you feed your body. Thoughts are simply things—neither good nor bad. Hard to believe, but in and of themselves, they are neutral things. It’s the emotions you attach to your thoughts that determine how you’ll feel about a certain situation and how you’ll react. Often, we’re programmed to feel a certain way; how we’ve seen significant others express their emotions and react in certain situations may color how we learn to feel and react. Some people see change and uncertainty as a challenge and an opportunity and embrace that. Others see the same as a disaster and a catastrophe, to be avoided at all costs.

Your emotions and reactions are two different things. Acknowledge your feelings but learn to tone them down to a realistic level. I’ve seen many people worry themselves sick over an imagined outcome. They live in constant anxiety and fear about what they can’t control. To what end?

Here’s a productive exercise. Imagine the worst-case scenario — i.e., the worst possible thing that can happen. Now imagine how you would manage to get through that. If you can imagine how you’d react in the worst-case scenario, you can get through the worst in reality.

5. Don’t let fear control your life. This seems obvious. But fear is a very loaded word. It expresses numerous emotions that carry a lot of weight in our psyche. Even the idea of fear can make us very uncomfortable mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. But fear is really a very normal emotion and often an important protective mechanism. It’s what we emotionally assign to it that makes it loom large in our thinking and feeling.

Fear can paralyze you if you let it rule your life. It can stop you from trying, changing, or achieving. If you choose to avoid fear at all costs, you will deprive yourself of many enriching experiences. Fear (of the unknown, of uncertainty) that prevents you from fully living will keep you existing in the same life year after year. Yes, you’ll feel safe and secure... but what a price to pay.

In addition, there are the usual suspects. Surround yourself with those who care about you and support you, especially during times of change and uncertainty. And while you’re waiting for things to quiet down and settle, reduce your stress through meditation, creative projects, and self-care.

More from Abigail Brenner M.D.
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