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Are You Afraid of Uncertainty?

3 steps you can take to make peace with the unknown.

Key points

  • Many people with anxiety struggle with an intolerance of uncertainty.
  • Although uncertainty is often viewed as scary, it's actually neutral.
  • To overcome uncertainty, one needs to change their beliefs about it and reduce behaviors that reinforce fears.
Andy Dean/Adobe Stock
Source: Andy Dean/Adobe Stock

What does this weird symptom mean?

Will I fail the test tomorrow?

Did I remember to lock the door when I left the house?

Will I have anyone to talk to at the party?

What if I don't get that job I want?

For many, uncertainty is scary, especially for those prone to excessive worry and other forms of anxiety. Someone once said to me, "If only I had a crystal ball that could tell me that everything will end up working out OK, then I'd be fine."

Unfortunately, that crystal ball doesn't exist.

If you struggle with intolerance of uncertainty, there are three steps you can take to make peace with it.

1. Challenge your views about uncertainty.

If you are reading this post, chances are you think that uncertainty is a bad thing. Many people jump to the conclusion that if there is uncertainty about something, it means that there is a high likelihood of a negative outcome. This mistake in thinking tends to occur when higher-stakes situations are involved.

In reality, much of what happens in life is uncertain at some point. When there is uncertainty about trivial, unimportant things, people don't give it a second thought. Think of all of the unknown outcomes you encounter in a day:

  • Will you run into someone you know at the grocery store?
  • Will you get any texts in the next half hour?
  • Will your favorite pastry be at the coffee shop when you go there?
  • Will something interrupt you before you finish this article?

You don't even think about many of these types of things, but they are all uncertain.

Although people tend to equate it with catastrophic outcomes, uncertainty is actually neutral: It's just part of life. It's all around you, and virtually everything that happens in the future carries some level of uncertainty.

2. Assess your uncertainty management strategies.

People use a lot of techniques to try to manage uncertainty. Unfortunately, they are often ineffective and make anxiety and distress worse. They also reinforce the erroneous belief that uncertainty is dangerous. Here are some examples:

  • Worry. People often use worry as a way to manage uncertainty. For instance, they might try to come up with every possible scenario to feel more prepared for whatever is to come. Sometimes there is a superstitious quality to worrying: Someone might think they need to worry about something terrible in order to prevent it from happening.
  • Excessive reassurance seeking. Many people go to others to get reassurance for their uncertainty-related fears. Or, they might use the internet excessively to help reduce their fears. For example, people with health anxiety often overuse the internet to self-diagnose.
  • Checking behaviors. Those who feel overly responsible for things might engage in excessive checking behaviors, such as checking the locks or the stove multiple times, as a way to reduce uncertainty.
  • Procrastination. Avoidance, in the form of procrastination, is commonly seen in those who have difficulties tolerating uncertainty. People might procrastinate on making decisions for fear of making the "wrong" decision.
  • Distraction. Some people pack their days with too much to do in order to avoid dealing with uncertainty. Those who use this strategy might have difficulties winding down for sleep and struggle with insomnia. Substance use is another form of distraction that people use to manage uncertainty.

3. Take action.

To take the fear out of uncertainty, commit to taking some action.

  • Accept uncertainty as part of life, and realize that it is usually not a sign of impending doom. As addressed above, uncertainty does not equal catastrophe. The next time you are worried about some possible horrible event in the future, remind yourself that the uncertainty should exist because it hasn't happened yet. It doesn't mean there is a disaster around the corner.

    Here's an exercise to help with this point: Make a list of times in your life that you struggled with uncertainty about something and indicate the outcome. Some of those outcomes might not have been good, but chances are, the majority were not horrible and catastrophic.

  • Make behavior changes to confront uncertainty. Think of specific ways to reduce your unhelpful uncertainty-management behaviors. If you use worry to manage uncertainty, challenge whether or not your worry actually helps you. If you can't do anything productive with your worry, remind yourself that worry is not helpful and that you can handle whatever outcome comes your way.

    If you engage in excessive reassurance-seeking or checking behaviors, actively reduce them. It might be anxiety-producing at first, but the more you resist, the easier it will become. Even if you begin by resisting for 30 seconds or a minute and then give in to the behavior, that is a good start.

    If you are avoiding uncertainty with procrastination, tell yourself that you will need to confront the task at some point and that putting it off does not help. Give yourself a short time limit to start or complete the task (e.g., "I am going to give myself 15 minutes right now to email my boss, and I need to do it during this time block.")

    If distraction is your avoidance strategy, work on slowing down. Consider starting a mindfulness practice to help you become more comfortable with not being busy. You can start with just a few minutes a day.

  • Get additional help. Many self-help resources are available for anxiety, worry, procrastination, and mindfulness if you need more support. If you find that your anxiety about uncertainty is causing many problems in your life, consider finding a therapist to help you better manage these issues.

Remember: Do not confuse uncertainty with catastrophe. Virtually everything in the future carries some degree of uncertainty. You might not have that crystal ball to resolve uncertainty, but there are steps you can take to make peace with it.

References

Fourtounas, A., & Thomas, S. J. (2016). Cognitive factors predicting checking, procrastination and other maladaptive behaviours: Prospective versus Inhibitory Intolerance of Uncertainty. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 9, 30–35.

Leahy, R. L. (2005). The worry cure: Seven steps to stop worry from stopping you. New York: Harmony Books

Lind, C., & Boschen, M. J. (2009). Intolerance of uncertainty mediates the relationship between responsibility beliefs and compulsive checking. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(8), 1047–1052.

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