Managing Anxiety in a World of Uncertainty
Choose one of the following prompts:
1) Today I choose to let go of things I can't control, including...
2) I often focus on things that have gone wrong in the past or on things that could go wrong in the future. Today I'm highlighting something positive in my life, like...
3) I recognize that I don't have all the answers right now. But in my experience, I've been guided to new paths when I felt at the end of the road, such as when...
The Link between Uncertainty and Anxiety
Would you rather know that your job is coming to an end, or hear rumors that you will be fired without any confirmation?
Would you prefer to have a known illness that doctors have a history of treating or an unknown illness with no known treatments?
The majority of people prefer knowing over not knowing, even if that certainty involves negative consequences. In one study, researchers found that participants would rather choose to receive an electrical shock during a session than face the possibility of an electrical shock. Participants even had a higher sympathetic activation while waiting for an unpredictable shock over the shock that they knew was coming.
When you are aware of future outcomes, you can plan and prepare but when you are left without answers your body activates the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight system – which opens your sweat glands, dilates your pupils, and energizes the action-oriented muscles throughout your body.
Uncertainty isn't always anxiety inducing, it can also be exciting. In fact, some people work harder when the scale of the reward is unknown. The degree to which uncertainty affects each individual differs and can be measured on the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. This scale assesses how much people desire and seek out predictability, and how they react in ambiguous situations. Someone with a high Intolerance to Uncertainty (IU) might find a situation anxiety provoking while someone with a lower intolerance might find a thrill in the same situation.
If the stress of not knowing is too much, then people usually resort to one of two strategies: avoid or approach.
A common example used to highlight these two strategies is as follows. Say that you are at home one evening and you hear noises outside. You could try to rationalize the cause of the noise by using your knowledge of past personal experiences. It could be raccoons in the trash, or neighborhood cats. As your mind wonders to consider if it might be burglars trying to enter your home, you consider that the rate of break-ins in your town are very low. Using this deductive thinking, you go to investigate. You find the trash tipped over and reason that some animals may have gotten into your garbage. Now you can go back inside and your sympathetic nervous system can calm down and shift to your relaxing parasympathetic state. On the other hand, someone with a higher IU may hear the same sound and begin to create stories about someone trying to enter the home and abducting them. Instead of rationalizing like someone with a lower IU might do, this person chooses to hide in their room with their door locked. The uncertainty remains and this person remains in the sympathetic state. This person is also more likely to follow this strategy the next time a similar situation arises.
Another form of approaching is comparison. Those with high IU tend to make sense of their place in life by comparing to others. If you tend to go the other way towards extreme avoidance you may miss out on opportunities for fear of leaving your place of comfort.
One key strategy for dealing with unpredictability is acceptance. We can practice saying to ourselves, "I don't like this but I can tolerate it." There are many things that we can not foresee in life, but one thing that we can count on is unexpected change. How many times have you heard someone mention "If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be here today, I would have never believed it!" Planning and having goals is a good idea. Embracing those moments in liminal spaces, when you aren't sure what's coming next is also a good idea.
Another helpful coping technique to avoid being consumed by the unpredictable future is to bring yourself to the present moment. Put your phone in another room, turn the TV off, find a quiet space to sit and check in with yourself. Can you notice the sounds, smells, sights around you without and judgement. Can you name the emotions that you feel? Use your breath as a focal point to ground yourself and realize that right now, in this moment you can control your breath. Anytime that your mind wanders off, thinking of all the variables that you don't have control over, bring the focus back to your breath. Even if the future has yet to write itself, in this current moment you can breath. In this moment you are safe and sound.
Uncertainty is an inevitable fact of life, we can't avoid it but we can try to manage our reaction to it. With practice, you can improve your tolerance of uncertainty so that an event that may have caused you anxiety in the past may only cause you brief stress and you can move into the planning stage much faster.
For more reading on this topic check out these pages:
Why We're Hardwired to Hate Uncertainty
How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety
Uncertainty and Anticipation in Anxiety
Anticipation, Uncertainty, and Anxiety (Video)