Why You Hate Uncertainty, and How to Cope
6 strategies to deal with a storm of uncertainty.
Posted November 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Due to its disdain for uncertainty, your brain invents all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day to keep you safe. A friend doesn’t respond to a text, a colleague wears a frown and uses a certain tone of voice, or you’re not included on the guest list. If you’re like most people, you assume the worst and over-personalize the event. You take these worst-case assumptions as fact without realizing it.
Why Uncertainty Freaks You Out
Uncertainty can cause tremendous anxiety. Your brain is constantly updating your world, making judgments about what's safe and what isn't. To the human mind, uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn't know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way. It always assumes the worst, over-personalizes threats, and jumps to conclusions. (Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty). And you’re hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them—all in the name of survival.
Your brain’s hefty responsibility to keep you safe means it hates life’s inevitable uncertainty—sulfuric acid for your lizard brain. It’s why so many of us meltdown right before a big trip or why instability at work can cause a bigger toll on our health than actually losing a job. It’s why even the most rational-minded adult might feel unsettled when they wonder who lurks underneath the clown makeup.
When certainty is questioned, your lizard brain goes haywire, instantly kicking you in the pants in an attempt to spur you to action and get you to safety. Waiting for certainty can feel like torture by a million tiny cuts, and you’re consumed with anxiety. Will I contact the coronavirus? Will the MRI reveal cancer? Will I get the job? Who’s in the house when the alarm goes off, friend or foe? The ground beneath you opens up, threatening to swallow you, or so it feels. Your serenity is seriously screwed—but hey, at least you’re safe, right?
Safety Can Limit Success
Safety doesn’t equal success or happiness, though. Safety equals safety. Period. No matter what, the survival mind insists on knowing an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. It’s more stressful wondering if you’ll get to your meeting on time than knowing you’ll be late. It’s less anxiety-inducing to know you’ll divorce than being unsure of it. And it’s more fearful not knowing if you’re going to get sacked than knowing for sure you lost your job.
Research shows the brain even prefers physical pain to uncertainty. British researchers found that study participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50 percent chance of getting the shock. No wonder you fight or flee when it doesn’t know which way is up.
Unfortunately, though, while avoiding uncertainty may help you stay safe and sound, the cocoon your primitive brain constructs for you is a virtual prison. The same assumptions that keep you safe permeate every sphere of your life. They prevent you from growing and reaching your dreams. You’re led in the wrong direction, creating heartbreak and dissension, and wasting vast amounts of time and energy.
6 Tips To Cope With Uncertainty
1. Surrender to the unknown.
“Dancing With The Stars” champion Julianne Hough is a huge advocate of embracing uncertainty, especially during challenging times like the coronavirus pandemic. She told me she attributes it to her success and ultimate happiness: “To embrace uncertainty, to surrender to the unknown, as hard as that may be, I believe that’s where the magic happens. If we already know what we want, we’ve already set a limitation for ourselves. When you go into the unknown, you go into the light, the complete uncertainty and you have no idea, but that’s when you can create ultimate possibility. So, embrace the unknown, embrace the presence of, ‘I have no idea what tomorrow will hold, but I do have the power and control within myself to make a choice of who I am today.’”
2. Develop uncertainty tolerance.
Despite your best efforts, things won’t always go as planned. Expectations will go awry, unexpected events will blindside you, and you will experience disappointment and rejection. If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, you only amplify your fear and end up at war with yourself, resisting and arguing with life rather than living it.
Notice what you’ve resisted that has kept you from reaching your dreams. Ask if you’ve tried to force, resist, or cling to something or someone over which you have no control. Then consider accepting whatever you’ve worked hard to control, and challenge yourself to control your response to what you can’t control. Take a deep breath, spread your arms, and imagine welcoming the unknown with an open heart, as you might a lantern guiding you in the darkness. See if you’re able to accept the unknown—no matter what—and use the unpredictable outcomes to cultivate a growth mindset and thrive fully into the person you were meant to be.
3. Look for the opportunity in the difficulty
Unchecked, your need for certainty can inadvertently siphon the joy out of your life—as in the morning Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, an Asheville, North Carolina writer and photographer, said she had been working at her computer. When she got up and glanced out the window, she noticed everything was white. “There'd been no snow in the forecast,” she said. “But there was snow covering everything and falling in the largest flakes I'd ever seen! My first response? A little panic.”
She went on to say that the uncertainty of how much snow might fall and the consequences thereafter were forefront in her mind. “I quickly tallied up how much food we had on hand and the likelihood that my husband would get home safely within the hour.” Then she found herself suddenly making a U-turn as her "thrive mind" took over and began to celebrate the unexpected event: “I saw the opportunity in the snow and got busy having fun taking pictures."
4. Keep an Unmade Mind
Your perspective is the most powerful thing you can control in a situation that is beyond your control. Fear, panic, and worry are not preparation. They add insult to injury—another layer of stress that can compromise the immune system and paradoxically make us even more stressed out.
When your mind is already made up before each new experience, you become unteachable and can no longer receive insights. Unmaking your mind or emptying it of expectations opens you to receive the teachable moments in each new experience. Buddhists call it the “beginner’s mind”—being open to many possibilities instead of closed to all but one. For every situation, there are numerous possible outcomes. By learning to be okay with “maybe,” you become more comfortable with uncertainty and open yourself to possibility.
5. Focus on what you can control.
When you’re faced with uncertainty, focus on things around you that you can control. Dwell on positive aspects of your life where you can make a difference. Consider the personal resources at your fingertips, instead of the unknowns: staying healthy, getting ample sleep, exercising, meditating, eating well, and establishing strong social supports. Remind yourself how they provide an opportunity for you to stay grounded. When was the last time you soaked in a hot bath, meditated, or got a massage? Make a fifteen-minute appointment with yourself and schedule personal time so you have more to give and receive. Then, reach out to others, stay in touch with loved ones, and volunteer to help when and where you can.
6. Frame unknowns as adventures instead of problems.
Just as there’s a fine line between good news/bad news, there’s a fine line between excitement and terror. On autopilot, your lizard brain lures you into looking at unknowns as a threat or problem that needs solving. When you flip that perspective, you can frame the situation as an adventure or challenge. That outlook automatically expands your perspective and welcomes in possibilities and solutions instead of eclipsing them with problems. You feel excitement instead of fear. Studies show that this perspective shift makes you feel empowered and less anxious instead of victimized by uncertainty.