Are You Scared of Life’s Uncertainty? Here are Ways to Cope

Image Credits: NPR

By Wasim Kakroo

TODAY more than any other time in history, uncertainty is all around us. Uncertainty has been identified as a defining characteristic of modernity, with economist Barry Eichengreen arguing that we are living in an “age of hyper-uncertainty”. Much of what lies ahead in life remains unpredictable, whether it has to do with the worldwide pandemic such as COVID-19 that the whole world got engulfed into, economy, your relationships, finances, or health. But at the same time, we as human beings yearn for security. We want to feel secure and in charge of our lives and wellbeing.

As per English dictionary, uncertainty is a state of doubt about the future or about what is the right thing to do.
From a psychological point of view, Uncertainty is defined as “the state of incomplete information or knowledge about a situation, or the possible alternatives or the probability of their occurrence, when their outcomes are not known by the person”.

It can also be defined as a state wherein “details of the situation are ambiguous, complex, unpredictable, or probabilistic; when information is unavailable or inconsistent; and when people feel insecure in their own state of knowledge or the state of knowledge in general”.

Uncertainty is a constant in life and cannot be avoided. We can never know with certainty what will actually happen on any day, because we cannot look into the future. The capacity for accepting uncertainty varies among people. To put it another way, although some people can handle a great deal of uncertainty, others find that even a little bit of it makes them uncomfortable.

You might experience stress, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness about the course of your life if you live in a state of constant fear and uncertainty. It can deplete you emotionally and keep you mired in a never-ending cycle of “what-ifs” and dreadful possibilities for the future.

What is intolerance to uncertainty?

Intolerance of uncertainty has been defined as “a dispositional characteristic that results from a set of negative beliefs about uncertainty and its implications and involves the tendency to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events”.

It is clear that most people tend to feel a little uneasy around uncertainty, which is understandable. We try to know that the place we are visiting for lunch has food we enjoy, that people we know will be at the party we were invited to join, and that our boss will be honest with us about how we are doing at work. We feel more at ease having this information than not knowing anything about the restaurant we are going to, not knowing who will be at the party, and not knowing whether our boss thinks we are doing a good or bad job.

What are the various behaviors shown by a person who is intolerant of uncertainty?

If you can’t handle uncertainty in your life, you might probably take steps to either completely eliminate uncertainty from day-to-day circumstances or actively avoid them.

When someone is unwilling to accept uncertainty, they may exhibit specific behaviors, such as:

1. Excessively looking on others for validation and reassurance: If you need to make a decision (even smaller ones), you might do this every time by consulting your friends or family.

2. List-making: Some people will create lengthy, in-depth “to do” lists, often multiple lists each day, as a strategy to remove uncertainty.

3. Confirming twice: For instance, continually calling loved ones to “make sure” they are alright or carefully checking emails numerous times to ensure that they are flawless and error-free.

4. Refusing to assign duties to others: Many people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty refuse to assign certain chores to others at work or at home because they cannot be “confident” that they will be completed correctly unless they do them themselves.

5. Procrastination/avoidance: Some people simply put things off or steer clear of people, places, or situations because uncertainty might create anxiety. You don’t have to be unsure about anything if you don’t do it.

6. Distraction: Many people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty keep themselves “occupied” for the most of the day to avoid having to reflect on all the unpredictability in life.

You might have realized that a lot of time and effort are needed to carry out each of these behaviors. The fun of life can frequently be taken away by a need for absolute certainty since surprises or unanticipated events seem threatening. A dislike of uncertainty may also force you to avoid or put off taking advantage of many excellent possibilities in life.

How can intolerance of uncertainty lead to mental health issues especially emotional disorders?

Intolerance of uncertainty is similar to being allergic to a certain thing. For instance, if you have pollen allergy, exposure to even a small quantity of pollen will cause you to sneeze, cough, and your eyes to get red and teary.
We as human beings have a natural tendency to be sure and secure about important things in our life, but some people take this tendency to next level and try to eliminate uncertainty of any degree from almost all the areas of their life. This leads to more and more intolerance to uncertainty.

People who are significantly intolerant of uncertainty have a strong reaction when exposed to even a small amount of uncertainty just like allergy. They worry and try everything in their power to avoid, reduce, or get rid of the uncertainty. However, being extremely intolerant of uncertainty can be problematic since it might result in a lot of time-consuming and exhausting behaviors (some of which we discussed above), adds to stress and anxiety, and is a huge source of worry. This struggle with uncertainty is what can lead them into various types of emotional disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Depression etc.

How can I develop greater tolerance for uncertainty?

Changing a mindset is obviously difficult, even if you believe that being more accepting of uncertainty would be beneficial. As per Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected, and if you alter one, you can influence the others.

The following tips may be useful if you struggle to deal with uncertainty.

1. Develop self-awareness:

Consider developing self-awareness to understand how to deal with uncertainty. Recognizing the particular situations that may create anxiety can be accomplished by first admitting that you struggle with dealing with things outside of your control. Try to be mindful and aware of the patterns of thinking, emoting and behaving in such situations and how have these patterns impacted your relationships/career/hobbies/emotional state.

This is not to feel awful about not being able to deal with uncertainty. Instead, it’s to be aware of what sets off your anxiety response, how it affects your life, and what chances each scenario presents for possible personal growth.

2. Take a pause and name the feeling:

Try to give your fear of uncertainty a name so you can handle it when it starts to arise. “I’m worried about this because I’m afraid of this or that.”

By doing this, you might be able to take a moment to reflect on what is occurring and why.

For instance, your boss offers you the chance to work on a fascinating new project. You think it sounds like fun, but you’re actually nervous and anxious. Your reaction is to decline the offer, because you’re unsure of how it will turn out or because you have doubts about your skills or abilities to finish the assignment.

Instead of being afraid of the situation, take a step back and tell yourself, “I recognize I’m anxious because I’m frightened things won’t work out well. However, I have no control over things, and this is an excellent chance. These are the advantages of my taking the offer”.

3. Concentrate on the facts:

Try to evaluate the situation based on the evidence rather than your anxious thoughts while making a decision. Your fear may make you believe that the worst-case situation is more likely to occur. You can make a more accurate assessment of the situation by using reasoning.

Cognitive distortions are filtered ideas that could lead you to perceive a situation more adversely than is actually the case. You can turn away from them and concentrate on the evidence by recognizing them.

Using the previous example, you might conclude that you have the ability to provide results and that you are a top performer. You recall that the previous project you oversaw was challenging but a wonderful success. This could be yet another fantastic chance for growth.

4. Accepting that sometimes things might go wrong and then making peace with the past:

Even if it may be what you fear the most, bad things do happen in life. Not always, but occasionally.

You might purchase a cloth on a whim and subsequently regret it. You might attend a party and become utterly bored. Going to the most expensive restaurant could result in indigestion or stomach upset. It happens.

You might want to conduct some research before making major decisions, such as going to college or purchasing a new car. Nevertheless, it’s critical to recognize that, occasionally, even when you do your research, things cannot turn out as you had intended and that is O.K.

You eventually learn something from every mistake and failure. You’ll figure out a method to overcome obstacles, whether it involves returning the clothing or changing colleges.

Although “making the incorrect decision” can be frightening, understanding that it will pass and that you can control any consequence at least at the emotional level may help you deal with it.

  • The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar) and works as a consultant clinical psychologist at Centre for Mental Health Services (CMHS) at Rambagh Srinagar. He can be reached at 8825067196

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