Dealing with uncertainty is tough as life is unpredictable. Part of our nature as human beings is to try can create order and predictability in our lives, but there is no way to do this 100%. The sliver of uncertainty that exists in all our lives can grow or shrink depending upon what’s going on at any given time – but it’s always there.
The universal role of uncertainty has rarely taken the spotlight more than it has over the last nearly two years. A worldwide pandemic brought into flagrant focus the fact that there’s no way for any if us to control every aspect of our lives. And for some, this realization initiated a barrage of mental health challenges including stress, anxiety, and depression.
Of course, it doesn’t take a pandemic to remind us that we can’t predict or control the future. Daily there are things that come out of the blue that can shake us. They might be happy things like being given a bonus at work, or frightening like an unexpected death. Whatever they are, we have to find a way to handle these unexpected events and move forward.
So, what can we do to effectively deal with the discomfort uncertainty in our lives can cause?
The Most Common Disruptive Reactions to Uncertainty
Uncertainty can cause its own brand of anxiety and stress. While we may all react in slightly different ways, most of us can keep perspective and maintain our regular day-to-day activities. There are some though whose response to uncertainty can become disruptive.
For these people the worry surrounding uncertainty can change the way they live, making it hard to experience happiness, at least for periods of time.
And even though everyone will respond somewhat differently, there are some commonly seen ways this anxiety can manifest. They include the following:
• Need for repeated reassurances. Worrying about what might happen next can lead people to seek reassurance in the extreme. Consider someone who’s worried about a loved one’s health. They may get to the point of nearly begging doctors to promise that that person will be okay. Some may even go to extremes, consulting horoscopes, psychics or using other means to attempt to know the unknowable.
• Inability to stay focused. Concern about the unknown can also lead to obsessive worry over what’s going to happen. This can cause your thoughts to cycle through concerns in such a way that you’re unable to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. For some people this can become almost paralyzing.
• Repeatedly playing out all the possible outcomes. Similar to the inability to stay focused, a person can become so concerned with the need to “know” what’s unknowable in a situation that they obsess over all possible outcomes. This stems from a desire to be prepared for anything by trying to imagine every possibility as a potential certainty.
• Becoming hypercautious. In an attempt to eliminate the potential for things outside of their control to occur, some may try to prevent the opportunity for uncertainty to creep in. They can do this by trying to live their lives in such a cautious, overly controlled way that in their minds they’re leaving no room for uncertainty.
• Assuming the worst. In the face of uncertainty some will automatically assume the worst possible outcome is the only possibility. This is referred to as catastrophizing and goes way beyond being simply prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
There are, of course, variations to each of these reactions, and they can present themselves in different intensities and forms for different people.
Coping With Uncertainty
So, if you are one of the many who struggle with anxiety that uncertainty can bring, what can you do to cope? Keeping things in perspective and learning how to live with uncertainty is the key, because no matter what you do you will simply never eliminate it.
The good news is there are some well-established methods that can assist you in keeping uncertainty in perspective.
• Understand what you can control and what you can’t. You can control keeping yourself healthy through exercise, good eating habits, and routine check-ups. You can’t control whether a worldwide pandemic occurs. Knowing what you can affect and what you can’t is the first step in letting go of unproductive worry. Make a list of things that worry you and place them in two categories – what you can control and what you can’t. A word of caution here – you can only control you and your behavior, not the behavior of others. Be sure this list is true to that fact.
• Focus on your “control” list. Once you’ve made you list of things within your control you can focus on them. Again, make sure you’re focusing only on what you can control – your health, work, home organization, finances, etc.
• Meditate. Uncertainty can give rise to anxiety and an unsettled mind. Meditation in any of its forms can go a long way to creating calm. Even a minute of quiet, deep breathing can have big benefits.
• Break things down into simplest form. When you’re overly worried and struggling to maintain focus, breaking things down into smaller parts and taking things one chunk at a time can help. For instance, if you’re working on a project, make a list of the smallest steps you can to reach completion and focus on finishing one at time with breaks in between.
• Have a support buddy. For most things in life, it’s useful to have a support buddy. Coping with the anxiety of uncertainty is no different. This is a person who cares about you and can help you stay grounded when your anxiety is taking over by talking you through resetting your perspective. It can also be helpful to just give a voice to your worry and let someone else help you see the bigger picture.
• Accept what you can’t change. Remember that list of things you can’t control? Look at it, accept that you cannot impact those things, and then throw it away. This symbolic act of acceptance can help you mentally to do the same and rid yourself of those worries. You may have to make these lists more than once and go through this process multiple times to reset your brain and move on. What you’re likely to find, however, is that the list gets smaller over time as you accept the things outside your control more readily.
There will always be uncertainty in your life and unexpected events will occur. These may be good or bad, there’s no way to know. But taking care of yourself and the things that you can control will help you to be both mentally and physically prepared to react and handle those unexpected events. And effectively coping with uncertainty will allow you to be happier and be able to enjoy the good things life offers as well.