Fear of uncertainty

6 tips to accept your fear of uncertainty

October 10, 2018

I have never met a person who absolutely 100% loves the unknown. I have never met someone who actively enjoys all the curve balls that life throws at them. And for good reason – we humans often like predictability, comfort and many people have a fear of uncertainty. We like the feeling of knowing what’s around the corner so we can take active, helpful steps to prepare for it. Right? Well, this is why many of us struggle. After all, life is unpredictable and the only thing certain in life is uncertainty.

Why do we struggle with uncertainty?

Evolutionary speaking, anxiety is an extended version of the fight–or-flight response which evolved to keep us safe and alive – an animal without fear is a dead animal! This same phenomenon also explains why we tend to seek out certainty and avoid or attempt to eliminate uncertainty. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, if you heard a rustle in the woods you might think “it could be a rabbit (dinner!) BUT what if it’s a bear!”

We certainly did not evolve from the silly and incredibly impulsive predecessors that didn’t seek out any information before running into the woods – we evolved from the ones that sourced information to either gain further certainty as to what exactly was in the woods or the ones that chose to avoid and hide from the unknown of the woods. Therefore, we have evolved to carry this tendency with us. However, rather than only applying it to potentially life-threatening situations, we take it with us into everyday situations, like our work and our relationships.

We are creatures of habit – habit is certain and certain feels good. I for one love certainty, but unfortunately certainty doesn’t really love me! So, how do we cope in the face of uncertainty? Let’s review the background of uncertainty first…

Understanding the Tolerance of Uncertainty

The Tolerance of Uncertainty is exactly what the name suggests – a person’s ability to cope with uncertainty. This differs across each individual. A person’s intolerance of uncertainty (inability to cope with uncertainty) is a higher-order process that results in worry through three processes:

Positive beliefs about worry. Believing that worry is helpful in some way. “If I worry about this, I am finding certainty by problem solving”. This becomes incredibly unhelpful when the worry is outside of our control, thus thinking about it only leads to more worry!
Negative problem orientation. Negative problem orientation refers to when you feel helpless to solve problems, view problems as threatening or as barriers, and thus doubt your ability to solve problems.
Avoidance. Avoiding problems and uncertainty. As we know, avoidance is one of the biggest perpetuators of anxiety.

How we Respond to Uncertainty
Given that uncertainty doesn’t feel that warm and inviting, we often take steps to either avoid or approach it to increase our level of certainty and to decrease our level of anxiety.

“Approach” Strategies:
1. Wanting to do everything yourself and not delegating tasks to anyone else
2. Looking for a list of information before proceeding with something
3. Questioning a decision you have already made because you are no longer certain that it was the best decision
4. Seeking reassurance from others
5. Rechecking and doing things over because you are no longer sure you did them correctly
6. Overprotecting others, doing things for them (i.e., friends, family members, children)

“Avoidance” Strategies
1. Avoiding fully committing to certain things
2. Finding imaginary reasons for not doing certain things
3. Procrastinating

Do you do some of these? I know I do!

6 tips to build our tolerance of uncertainty

1. Know yourself!
No-one ever got anywhere without understanding themselves, the way they “tick” and the way they do things. For most of us, understanding and learning about ourselves can often feel uncomfortable and confronting. Try and spend some time ticking off and reflecting on the above strategies that you might use to eliminate or avoid uncertainty.

2. Identify the costs
Approach and Avoidance strategies often reduce anxiety in the short term but exacerbate it in the long term. Also, if you are using some of these strategies, I bet you are spending a lot of time and energy trying to eliminate uncertainty at all costs. What is it costing you? Time, worry, confidence perhaps? Write down or mentally note what this behaviour is costing you.

3. “But once I do x, y and z everything will be okay, and nothing will be uncertain!”
Not exactly. Remember, the only thing certain about life is uncertainty. If we are forever waiting on the “next best thing” and forever trying to eliminate and avoid uncertainty we will rarely be in the moment and we will rarely enjoy life! If you notice this thought popping up, simply come back to step 2!

4. Know what’s important
Anxious feelings and thoughts often tend to lead us to make actions based on what we are thinking and feeling. Anxiety often leads to avoidance, withdrawal and procrastination; therefore, anxiety often gets in the way of the most important things in our lives. An example of this might be someone who really wants to make friends because they value connection, friendship and intimacy. Unfortunately, the sheer uncertainty of what others might think of them prevents them from making new friends, so they opt for avoidance of social situations instead.

How is your intolerance of uncertainty getting in the way of your life? How is anxiety managing you? What are you missing out on because of it? How might this be getting in the way of the person you want to be? Write down or mentally note what is most important in your life right now. What could you not live without? If you have some spare time, I have provided a thought-provoking activity that might help to flesh out your values.

https://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/VALUED_Living_Questionnaire_-_adapted.pdf

5. Face what you fear
Behavioural experiments are when we test out feared predictions. Think of a feared situation – it might be being late to an appointment. In the past, you might have eliminated this uncertainty by leaving an hour early when it may only take 20 minutes to commute. Spend some time reflecting on the worst thing that might happen if you were in fact late.

Now, you would test out your prediction and you might leave 30 minutes earlier rather than an hour earlier. What happened? How did you cope with the outcome? Was it as bad as your mind told you it would be? The goal of behavioural experiments is to start with small feared situations and then move to larger ones. It is likely that you will notice that in most uncertain situations, the outcome is tolerable, and when it’s not, there will often be ways to manage it.

6. Learning to sit with uncertainty
Learning to sit with uncertainty is easier said than done. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches us strategies to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, so that we can take action based on what we value. Anxiety often gets in the way of people’s lives and unfortunately, people’s actions are often fueled by anxious thoughts and feelings rather than the stuff that makes life important!

If you feel that your intolerance of uncertainty is getting in the way of your life and you would like some support to tolerate it, a psychologists can help. Please feel free to contact us at Attuned Psychology today to make an appointment with one of our friendly and experienced psychologists.

Ashleigh Stodden
Psychologist

 

References
1. Cuncic. (2018)
2. Dugas and Robichaud (2006)


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