Uncertainty is Uncomfortable. Here’s How We Can Learn to Live With It

Checking your email to hear back from a job. Searching for signs that your partner loves you back. Waiting for the world to go back to so-called normal.

Many of life’s most anxious experiences are governed by uncertainty. And the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic has only stacked more unknowns on top of people’s trying circumstances and mental health. Psychologists and therapist have been studying psychological uncertainty for ages, and they offer some clarity to some basic, nagging questions about the condition and how to deal with it.

For starters, some scholars define uncertainty as simply as the awareness of a lack of knowledge. Others conceptualize it as a fear of the unknown, with the understanding that the unknown has the potential to be threatening.

Why Do I Feel This Way?

As COVID starkly reminded us, nothing in this world is certain. And yet, many of us spend much of our lives courting the illusion of certainty.

Dan Grupe, a psychologist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains the tendency this way. “Our brains evolved to try and create order and predictability,” he says. “Your brain is constantly generating models about the future that are based on past experience.”

As uncertainty increases, Grupe adds, it takes a lot more energy for the brain to make sense of the world, which manifests as a feeling of anxiety. Humans also have a tendency to simulate negative outcomes more than positive ones, potentially to be better prepared in case of danger. Unfortunately, this mental simulation also manifests in our physical body, increasing stress levels, heart rate, and leading to the physical and psychological discomfort that distinguishes anxiety. In the world we evolved in, this fight-or-flight response helped us respond to immediate physical threats. But in today’s environment, this adrenaline rush can harm more than it helps solve our intangible problems.

What Can I Do About It?

As with many psychological issues, there are two common ways to cope: Change the nature of the problem, or change your mental approach to it. 

Eric Anderson, an experimental psychologist at the Center for Outcomes Research & Evaluation (CORE) at the Maine Medical Center, says that in some cases, it’s possible to become more comfortable by reducing the amount of uncertainty. If you’re anxious about moving to a new place or starting a new job, reaching out to someone who’s already there and hearing about their experience can give you more information about your future. Unfortunately, it’s never possible to know exactly what the future will look like. So changing your mental approach is often necessary when it comes to uncertainty.

Harmful Strategies

A common way people try to change their emotions surrounding an uncertain scenario is by distracting themselves. Whether this is binge-watching a TV show, partying with friends or scrolling on social media, distracting yourself rarely helps you deal with the uncertainty — it just puts off the feeling of discomfort until later.

Jo Daniels, a senior lecturer of clinical psychology at the University of Bath, says a few common strategies tend to do more harm than help. One of these is reassurance seeking, asking questions of another in order to gain external certainty. The other is worrying, such as fixating on possible scenarios in order to feel like you have more control.

“We’re seeking certainty. But actually, what we really get is exposing ourselves to more information,” Daniels says.

Opening yourself up to more possible scenarios actually introduces unnecessary variables, which makes it even harder to know what to expect. While it may feel like you’re dealing with the problem, worrying and reassurance seeking are in fact just like other distraction techniques. You can end up chasing the new variables in circles around your head without actually dealing with the problem. 

Helpful Strategies

While it may seem counterintuitive, Daniels shared that actually staring the problem in the face is one of the more helpful strategies when it comes to uncertainty. Take some time to notice what exactly you’re worried about, and ask ‘what’s the underlying fear prompting this anxiety?’

For example, if you don’t get this job, will that take away your value as a person? Then, separate your thoughts from facts by searching for evidence. In the aforementioned scenario, the facts could look like: None of my loved ones will change their opinion about me regardless of if I get this job. Daniels recommends letting yourself explore the honest repercussions, taking control where you can, and letting go where you cannot.

“Thoughts are there. And that’s quite normal. Just consider these worrying thoughts as a normal response to a difficult situation and remember that they are thoughts, not facts,” she says.

Given that it takes a lot of bravery to face fears head-on, Daniels adds that factors like having a tight-knit community, spiritual practices and professional help can make it easier to cope with uncertain situations. Simplicity, rituals and the feeling of psychological safety that arise in these environments can help make the world feel less frightening.

Reframing Uncertainty as Possibility

One of the most powerful exercises that can improve your relationship with uncertainty is reframing an uncertain situation as a situation with exciting possibilities. While not knowing what’s going to happen makes it harder to predict the future, sometimes that’s a good thing. Life would be boring if we knew what was going to happen every single moment. It’s the same reason we don’t like spoilers for books or movies: Excitement, anticipation and surprise are only possible if the outcome is uncertain.

Moe Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta introduced a powerful reframing exercise that can make uncertainty exciting instead of scary.

“I think uncertainty has the connotation that things will be negative. It elicits fear,” Brown says. “The relationship to possibility is so much more positive. So I encourage people to reframe uncertainty as possibility and jump into the possibility of positive outcomes.” 

Brown elaborated that uncertainty is a powerful force that can allow us to manifest change in our lives. Any new thing must be uncertain before it can become familiar. Uncertainty is necessary for growth, and can easily be a stepping stone that provides more happiness.

With all this said, Brown did give the caveat that it’s much easier to embrace uncertainty when you feel psychologically safe. Knowing what you need in order to feel physically, mentally and emotionally safe is essential to be able to embrace possibilities.

Meaning in the Mystery

At the end of the day, there’s no way to ensure certainty. Instead, staying open to new possibilities allows our lives to be richer and more exciting than our brains could ever predict. The key to coping with uncertainty is reframing it around possibility: recognizing the magical and mystical surprises of life that fill it with meaning.

That might look like accepting a job offer that came from a contact completely out of the blue; watching your partner smile under the fairy lights as they say, “I love you;” or spending time at home with people you love during the new normal.

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