Uncertainty has a way of paralyzing and controlling you, but you don’t have to let it.
I stood at the edge. Staring down at the face of the water 30 feet below. Heart-pounding. My brain thinking a hundred different things at once as a couple of dozen other adventurers who decided to veer off the beaten path in Kauai’s forest looked on.
What if I drown? What if I hit the water the wrong way and it knocks me out somehow? Or what if I belly-flop and everyone laughs? What if this could be the most exhilarating experience of my life? But what if this changes everything I understand about my fears?
Only six inches from my heels to the lip of the cliff divided total uncertainty and what surely would happen if I took the next step.
And I had a choice. I could turn around and avoid the situation altogether. I could stand there, staring, paralyzed. Or, I could take a step and move forward, perhaps in more ways than one.
We all experience uncertainty in life. And this has never been truer than in the last three months:
COVID-19: Are things getting better or worse?
What’s to come with this new election year?
Will there ever be a solution to racism?
Will we ever experience life as we knew it, once (or if) the pandemic ends?
Are protests leading to peace or more violence?
How do we protect our kids?
Why are we getting hit with disasters like the Australian wildfires and murder hornets and tornadoes that kill and destroy?
Will any of these things put me or my family in real danger?
We continue to be inundated with a life that grows more and more uncertain by the day. And that festering uncertainty is like pouring gasoline on an already-burning woodpile of anxiety.
What exactly is the relation of uncertainty to our feelings of anxiety?
Dr. Michael Stein, founder and owner of the private therapy practice Anxiety Solutions, says that facing uncertainty isn’t like confronting tangible fears such as snakes, dogs, or heights. These are the kinds of anxiety-inducers that you can avoid by walking (or running!) away.
Uncertainty is much more elusive. You can’t literally run away from uncertainty. So, your brain pulls a fast one on you by telling you the way to deal with uncertainty is to overanalyze it. It makes sense; if you can logic out the uncertainty until it’s no longer uncertain, then problem solved!
This is why it’s so easy to run stressful scenarios over and over in your head—what we call “ruminating.” You repetitively work scenarios through your head to come up with the most likely outcome. Because, if the sky falls, at least you’ll know it’s coming.
The only problem with this is, it doesn’t work. Uncertainty is, well, uncertain. No matter how much we try to rationalize or reason, we just don’t know what the outcome is going to be. And so you just go through this process of uncertainty, overanalyzing, uncertainty, overanalyzing… which opens the door wide for anxiety to come barging through.
But if uncertainty is so uncertain, what’s there to do other than worry?
When you have no crystal ball to see into an uncertain future, it’s easy to overvalue worry, fear, and anxiety. You feel like that’s the only thing you can do to survive. But this does us much more harm than good.
Not only does the anxiety fueled by uncertainty have a negative impact on our sense of well-being and emotional adjustment, but it also wreaks havoc on our relationships. Once we get caught up in overstressing about something uncertain, it’s easy to slip into becoming anxious about anything uncertain. And this drives a wedge between the connection and intimacy we feel with our family members and those close to us.
So what is there to do other than have anxiety?
Dr. Stein says one thing you must do is change your thinking about uncertainty altogether—
If you tolerate uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate it, your brain eventually learns all of the following:
- Uncertainty is not dangerous. It’s tolerable.
- There is no point to worry; it doesn’t stop bad things from happening.
- What worry does is cause you suffering right now, but it does not save you from suffering later on.
- Uncertainty does not require your attention.
Training your brain to hold on to these truths is akin to, as Stein says, operating a spotlight. You change the focus of the spotlight from the uncertainty and worry to whatever you are doing in the present moment.
All this boils down to a healthy understanding of what you can control and what you cannot control, and resolutely accepting that.
A helpful exercise I have found with uncertain situations is to make two columns on a sheet of paper titled Things I Cannot Control and Things I Can Control. Then write as many thoughts under each column as you can.
For example, if you are facing the uncertainty of a possible job loss due to cutbacks from COVID-19, you may write under Things I Cannot Control:
- I cannot control if the company downsizes.
- I cannot control when final decisions are made.
- I cannot control how the company determines who they’ll let go.
And then, under Things I Can Control:
- I can control how I prepare to seek employment somewhere else, like updating my resumé or reaching out to business contacts.
- I can control the level of job performance I continue to display, in case that is a determining factor for the company.
- I can control where I focus the spotlight (whether on the worry or on the present moment), especially when I am around my family.
- I can control how I take care of myself, physically and emotionally, so that I have the healthiest approach to uncertainty.
Uncertainty happens, all the time. We are all at the brink of the ledge, looking down into an unclear pool of water. Remember: this water isn’t something to worry and stress over and fear; it’s tolerable. You might not be in control of how cold it is or how high the ledge is. But you don’t have to let the uncertainty of what you can’t control paralyze you, and anxiety doesn’t have to be something that controls you. You are in control of the first step.