As an anxiety specialist, I spend a lot of my time helping people learn to handle facing uncertainty. OCD, for example, is perhaps best understood as an allergy to uncertainty that manifests in a number of ways: will I get sick (I need to know for sure this safe)? What if something bad happens to me or my loved ones (I need to know for sure it’s going to be ok)? What if I make a huge mistake (I need to know for sure it’s all going to work out)?
Intolerance of Uncertainty
Every anxiety disorder essentially boils down to some intolerance of uncertainty. But it’s so much broader than that. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you’re likely impacted by levels of uncertainty in some way. Our brains don’t like it, and we often have a built in adverse reaction to it.
The Assumptions We Make
How many times have we all heard over the past 18 months something along the lines of “These are uncertain times”? They are, of course, uncertain times. To be fair, though, times have always been uncertain. We just weren’t necessarily aware of it. The pandemic slapped us in the face with uncertainty – we can no longer take for granted that life is going to plug along the way it always has or the way we expect it to. A lot of our assumptions were shaken.
This foundation shaking has always happened, just typically on a more unique, individualized basis. Someone gets a life altering medical diagnosis. Someone is laid off. Or moves. Or an important relationship dissolves. We’ve all had periods of transition, periods of uncertainty in which our vision of the future becomes blurry.
Outside of those obvious, in your face moments, we often overlook uncertainty, assuming certainty without an actual guarantee of it. For example, how much are you worried about the plane barreling toward you right now about to crash into you as you read this? Are you running for cover? Seeking shelter? I doubt it.
Do you know for certain, 100% without a shadow of doubt, that a plane is not barreling toward you? No. Could it happen? Sure, theoretically. But, in the face of little evidence to the contrary, little sign of danger, we assume certainty and, therefore, safety. We operate as though the plane crash absolutely cannot and will not happen.
And that’s adaptive. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t assume certainty in some instances. Would you still go to work and save for retirement if you weren’t assuming you’d be around to see it? Would you still invest in your children if you weren’t assuming they’ll grow into healthy adults? Would you still eat kale if you weren’t taking care of your body with the hope of health and longevity? (No. Who eats kale for the enjoyment of it?!). The point being that we make a lot of assumptions about the continuity of things as they are.
That’s ok. In fact, it’s quite helpful.
But, the past 18 months have made us keenly aware that the future is not certain. Things can change abruptly. Our foundations have been shaken, and uncertainty is actually quite hard for us.
Our Brains Hate Uncertainty
Our brains are designed to keep us alive. When things are familiar and predictable, our brains can relax a bit. We’re safe. As soon as we enter into uncharted territory – something new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or – you got it – uncertain, our threat detection system goes into high alert. We have a fight or flight response. We don’t know what to expect. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. We might not be safe.
Our brains begin to scan, looking for every potential danger or thing that could wrong, and we experience that as anxiety or unease. Our brains are constantly looking for worst case scenarios to save us from. Our brains start striving toward certainty and safety again. Remember, that’s their number one job. This striving comes out in all kinds of ways, all centering on getting some sense of control. For example, we may plan, figure out, avoid, ruminate, try to control others, analyze, and any number of strategies ultimately aimed at getting rid of the uncertainty, getting us back to familiar, predictable ground. We want a sense of control, and we want a guarantee of safety. While it’s natural, the problem is that sometimes there isn’t a way to resolve the uncertainty, to get that guaranteed outcome that we’re looking for, and all of those efforts actually exhaust us or stress us out further. The goal, then, is to learn to tolerate uncertainty. To learn to be ok with not knowing and, hopefully, trust that we’ll be able to handle whatever might arise.
Dealing with uncertainty is like training a muscle that can be developed (think risk tolerance or expanding your comfort zone, both similar concepts here). One step you can take is to start to get clear about what is and isn’t knowable so that you can stop spinning your wheels seeking certainty where it’s not possible to get any. Ask yourself these key questions to determine if it’s worth your time and effort:
- Is this knowable?
- Is this knowable by me?
- Is this knowable by me right now?
If the answer is yes, yes, yes, by all means, continue to spend the time analyzing, thinking about, figuring out, and controlling. You can find the answers you’re looking for, then act accordingly.
If, however, the answer to any one of them is no, you’re better off working on accepting the uncertainty and putting your time and effort into other things that you actually can control.
When will COVID really be over?
I don’t think that’s knowable in general, certainly not by me right now. Rather than analyzing every bit of news (or noise – opinions and predictions masquerading as facts), I’ll focus on thriving through uncertainty.
What if my business venture (kids, relationships, fitness efforts, etc., etc.,) doesn’t succeed?
The future isn’t knowable. I can feel overwhelmed worrying about success, or I can spend my time working on strategies and steps that improve performance and move my business forward.
Notice the places where you find yourself saying (or thinking) “I just need to know” or worrying about how things will turn out or struggling with the unpredictability. Ask yourself those key questions. Then focus your energy and efforts accordingly.
Psychological Strength Is Key
When I look back over periods in my life that have felt very uncertain or were characterized by big transitions, I see how psychological strength is so helpful in navigating those times. These skills are invaluable in being able to thrive through adversity and deal with challenges. Fortunately, psychological strength can be developed. Dr. April and I will be diving much deeper into uncertainty and, more importantly, how to thrive through it, in a live virtual workshop on Wednesday (October 2021). If you want to take charge of your life and be more proactive in shaping how life feels for you, we’d love to have you join us. Tickets are only $19 (or free for Ascend members).
“If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.”
— Eckhart Tolle