Updated: Dec 27, 2022
Unexpected events like COVID-19, war, recession, and layoffs could make anyone feel overwhelmed. At the same time all positive situations in life also come from uncertainty – we don’t know where and when we’ll meet our partner, get promoted, move to another country or even what present we’ll get for our birthday.
It's a very normal human desire to have a good life, where nothing bad happens, our loved ones are safe and healthy, we have decent work and everything is predictable. In reality, we could control only some parts of our lives, have limited impact on events, and have no power over the lives of our loved ones.
Uncertainty is unavoidable, no matter how much we plan our lives, there is often something unexpected that comes up.
Uncertainty itself isn’t good or bad, it’s just “unknown”. What makes it positive or negative is how we perceive it. Some people feel comfortable with not knowing what to expect, others have difficulties coping with ambiguity, and the vast majority fall somewhere in the middle, tolerating uncertainty more or less depending on the situation.
When we struggle to tolerate uncertainty, our brain interprets ambiguous situations as stressful, upsetting, and perceives unexpected events as negative. The most obvious way to cope with intolerance to uncertainty – is to increase certainty. We do it by involving ourselves in protective behavior or by avoiding ambiguous situations.
Examples of protective behavior:
Worrying about every possible outcome, so that the situation itself feels more predictable and less uncertain, e.g. “What if I don’t get a response from a recruiter?”, “What if I receive a rejection email?”, etc.
Preparing a lot before proceeding with something, e.g. shopping for a very long time before choosing a present for someone.
Focusing on potential threats and exaggerating them, e.g. “My manager dropped an unexpected 1:1 meeting in my calendar, she will definitely fire me”
Asking for reassurance from others, e.g. “Please say that everything will be okay”
Control, overprotect others, or refuse to delegate to anyone else, e.g. doing all the work yourself, otherwise you cannot be certain that it will be done right
Examples of avoidance:
Avoid fully committing to certain things, like friendship or romantic relationships, because the outcome is uncertain
Finding reasons for not doing certain things, like refusing to involve in social gatherings, cause it increases anxiety
Procrastinating, e.g. putting off a call because you are not certain how the person will react
Both strategies have the same effect – people spend a great deal of time and energy to reduce uncertainty.
By trying to protect ourselves from unexpected situations we learn that we can’t cope if we are not ready for the worst-case scenario or without reassurance from others. By avoiding ambiguous situations we will never find out if the threat really exists and whether we can get through it.
We could think about intolerance to uncertainty as the “fuel” for worry. The more we worry the less confident we are in our ability to cope with problems life throws our way. How many of them you didn’t manage at all? You’ll probably be surprised by the answer.
Increasing certainty could give us some short-term relief, but it takes a lot of effort and makes us even more anxious in the long term. So, how about increasing your tolerance to uncertainty?
Cognitive behavior therapy or CBT is the most effective method to cope with worrying and anxiety . I would like to share three evidence-based CBT techniques that could help you:
spot the most common thinking errors and don’t let them worsen your perception of life events
worry productively and spend less time on unproductive worries
increase your tolerance to uncertainty
Cognitive distortions and how to spot them
Cognitive distortions are negatively biased thinking errors. First described in 1967 by Aaron Beck – psychiatrist and father of CBT [2, 3].
They are like Instagram filters created by our brain that skew our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. And guess what? Those errors occur automatically in response to life events and could worsen any situation we are in.
Here are 10 the most common ones:
Catastrophizing – making negative predictions about the future based on little or no evidence: “I’ll get fired and end up on the streets”
Overgeneralization – assuming that one negative event means that additional bad things will happen: "This date was terrible, I’ll never find a partner"
All-or-nothing thinking – thinking in extremes instead of considering the full range of possible evaluations: "I’ve made a mistake in my message, I've failed the project"
Emotional thinking – believing that something is true based on emotions rather than real facts: "I feel anxiety – life is dangerous"
Mind reading – assuming that others are thinking negatively about you: "They think I am boring"
Labeling – classifying oneself or others negatively based on a single event or behavior: "I forgot to mute myself during a zoom meeting – I am stupid"
Personalization – blaming yourself for circumstances that are not connected or caused by you at all: "My partner is unhappy because of me"
Mental filtering – focusing on negative and devaluing positive: "I hate this mark on my close it ruined my whole birthday party"
Disqualifying positive – ignoring positive things that have happened: "I got the job because of luck, not because I was working hard"
“Should” statements – thinking that things should be said or done in a certain way: "I should be rich to become successful", "Marriage should be easy"
How to help yourself?
Step 1: Simple awareness that our thoughts do not always reflect reality and could be distorted is a good start. When you feel bad, try to observe your thoughts and check them for distortions.
Step 2: If you found one, reframe it, be curious, ask questions, and look for objective evidence and alternative explanations. It could be helpful to write your original thought, followed by an alternative interpretation. For example:
“I should be rich to become successful” → “Success means different things for different people”
“I feel anxiety – life is dangerous” → “Anxiety is just a feeling and anxiety itself can’t make life dangerous”
“They think I am boring” → “In most cases we don’t know what others think about us until we ask them”
Step 3: Be patient. Learning new ways of thinking takes time, a bit of self-awareness, and practice.
(Un)productive worries and how to distinguish them
Now that we are familiar with cognitive distortions and know what to do about them, let’s see what CBT says about worries.
Worries are special types of thoughts about potential threats that haven't happened yet. You can easily notice them – they start with “What if..?”, e.g. “Skiing is dangerous, what if I’ll break my leg?”
We need productive worries, they help us solve problems. Unproductive ones though could make us stuck in a worry loop. But how to distinguish them? Well, there are at least four criteria:
The existence of an event: Productive worries are always about existing problems, unproductive ones are related to hypothetical or imaginary problems, like the one about breaking your leg.
The probability of an event occurring: Productive worries are about events with a high chance of occurring, for example, “If I cross on the red I could be hit by a vehicle”.
Unproductive ones are about situations with low probability or about events that may not happen at all, for example, “If I travel by plane I’ll die” or “If I win a lottery I’ll quit my job”.
Actions: Productive worrying leads to actions that help to solve the problem, it could be easily turned into an action plan, like an everyday to-do list, visa application checklist, etc.
Unhelpful worries exist only in our mind, and either don’t lead to any actions or lead to protective or avoidant behavior, like “What if something bad will happen to my partner on their way home?”.
Controllability: Productive worries are controllable and limited in time. Unproductive thoughts take a great deal of time and energy, and a person has difficulties controlling them – “I have a severe headache, what if it’s a brain tumor?”.
How to help yourself?
Step 1: When you caught yourself worrying, ask yourself these four questions to distinguish if your worries are productive:
Is it about an existing or a hypothetical problem?
If it’s hypothetical, is the risk of occurrence high or low?
Can you do something to solve the problem?
Is it helpful to think about it or is it a waste of time and energy?
Step 2.1: If your worries are productive, which means you are dealing with an existing problem or with an event with a high probability of occurrence, it would be helpful to end up with an action plan on how to solve an issue.
Step 2.2: If your worries are hypothetical and about something that has a low chance to happen, take a lot of time, and you can’t do anything about them, it means they are not productive. It would be more helpful to shift your attention to other tasks that you find useful or enjoyable.
Thoughts are just thoughts, we don’t have to delve into them, we could just observe them and let go. Mindfulness techniques could help us to develop mental distance from unhelpful thoughts.
Increasing uncertainty tolerance with exposure
We already know how to spot thinking errors and how to distinguish productive and unproductive worries. Good job! We are also aware of the main cause of worrying – which is our intolerance to uncertainty.
By acting as if you are tolerant to uncertainty, you can start changing your beliefs about uncertainty. A good way to do it is to ask: “If I were tolerant to uncertainty, what would I do in this situation?”. From there you can start deciding what actions to take to begin increasing your tolerance to uncertainty.
The only scientifically proven way to reduce anxiety in the long-term is exposure – repeatedly facing a situation that causes worrying. It means staying in an anxious situation, waiting until the anxiety level decreases without involving in avoiding or protective behavior.
How to help yourself?
I would like to invite you to complete at least one “tolerating uncertainty experiment” a week:
Step 1: Create a list of all types of behavior you involve when you feel anxious, like eating sweets, double-checking your message for spelling errors, etc.
Step 2: Choose something from the list that you find a little difficult, but not too difficult to start with. The first experiment should be simple and cause only moderate anxiety to ensure success.
An example of a list could be:
Send a message without rereading it
Make a minor decision without asking anyone for reassurance
Go to a movie or restaurant without reading any reviews
If you tend to do everything yourself, ask a friend or colleague to help you with some tasks
Pack for a trip without checking your bags many times
Call a friend unexpectedly and invite that person out for coffee, a concert, etc.
Step 3: When you’ll feel more comfortable doing one task, experiment with a more difficult situation from your list.
By doing these little exercises, you could learn to endure anxiety, after all, it’s just a feeling that passes over time. You’ll also learn that ambiguity is not always threatening, good things also come from uncertainty. Uncertainty makes our life exciting and full of unexpected enjoyable moments.
The bottom line
Uncertainty is a part of life, and it could be difficult to cope with at times. I hope that the three CBT techniques that were shared in this article will improve your relationship with uncertainty.
We don’t know what life has prepared for us. We could only hope for the best and cultivate confidence that we can deal with whatever life will throw our way.
Life is a balance between feeling safe and risk-taking. The amount of each is different for everyone, you just have to find yours.
As John Finley once said, “Maturity is the capacity to endure uncertainty”
With love and warm wishes from Olesia Bobruiko