“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” ~John Allen Paulos
Why do we sometimes worry about an uncertain future rather than welcome it?
Approaching the end of year and welcoming the new is often marked by personal and professional resolutions for a better future. These resolutions often bring a sense of anticipation and excitement.
Some people love January 1 and the “clean slate and a new year full of possibilities” concept. However, reflecting on the unforseen events of 2020 surrounding the global pandemic many maybe feeling a little more apprehensive and uncertain about the future than normal.
As a rule, humans favour certainty to uncertainty. For me, and many other people, uncertainty can lead to worry. When things aren’t known, it creates the potential for fear. Our inner cynic can worry about all the things that could go wrong. These situations offer a breeding ground for anxiety in anyone.
So what is it that triggers anxiety and causes us to struggle with uncertainty in our lives?
Anxiety and the fight or flight response
People who suffer from anxiety share two things in common:
- They overestimate the inherent threat in the situation;
- Underestimate their ability to cope.
Livings under the shadow of threat humans are primed through evolution to survive through the fight or flight response. It activates the moment we perceive a threat to our survival.
In ambiguous or unpredictable situations, the mind is wired to look for clues in the environment based on previous experiences. Our senses become sharpened while our mental attention focuses on the perceived threat.
Leaving our comfort zone signals potential risk. There is no assurance that things will turn out the way you want. The greater the step outside your comfort zone the more uncertainty there is in the outcome.
Under these circumstances there is no way you can switch off your fight or flight response; no way of instilling a feeling of certainty and assurance.
It’s the not knowing that triggers people’s anxiety.
Research shows humans struggle with not knowing
Numerous studies have shown people do not cope well with uncertainty in life. Recent research at the University of California suggests humans struggle with anxiety and worry when they don’t know what’s coming, and when they can’t do much about it. People would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news than the anxiety of remaining in limbo.
Similarly, an experiment by researchers in the UK found how anxiety-inducing it can be to have things looming in the future. People were connected to an electrical shock machine and asked to choose between receiving a strong electric shock immediately or wait for a milder one. The majority favoured the more pain option to get it out the way.
This counterintuitive behaviour plays out again and again in daily life. Whether it’s receiving a cancer diagnosis, finding out a round of IVF was unsuccessful, or discovering that you failed an exam, for many of us, undeniably bad news is easier to deal with than the uncertain waiting period that precedes it.
So knowing uncertainty fuels anxiety and leads to distress for humans what can we do to overcome the problem?
Finding control to ease the anxiety
Uncertainty leaves us clambering for some form of control. People who struggle with uncertainty engage in behaviours to try to feel more assured. Remember the recent images of people fighting over toilet paper in the supermarkets.
These types of actions can only provide temporary relief. Long term they will have the opposite effect sending our anxiety levels through the roof.
So if hoarding a year’s supply of toilet paper isn’t going to ease the anxiety that comes with living in a state of limbo, what will?
The pandemic has hijacked the circumstances of our lives—that’s the reality we can’t avoid. But our minds and our reactions are still our own.
4 ideas how to embrace an ambiguous future
Much of life lies beyond our control, but we do control what matters most: Our opinions, impulses, desires, and dislikes.
So, knowing this how can we get better at embracing an ambiguous future in times of uncertainty?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Uncertainty is a certain thing. Every New Year offers uncertainty. It’s the only guarantee we start with. We all have no idea how things will play out and unfold. At the beginning of 2020 no one could have predicted the impact of Covid-19 on our lives.
Being aware and accepting of this truth can help us better cope if things happen that we don’t expect. It makes sense to always be prepared for this possibility.
The next time you find your fear of uncertainty creeping in or holding you back, remind yourself that you can cope with uncertainty. Learn to accept what you can’t control.
2. Focus on the controllable aspects of life. Even when we are going through change and uncertainty there are many things in our life we can count on to stay constant and dependable.
Establishing a daily routine provides us a framework that helps us manoeuvre through our day with more confidence and ease. Routine provides a pace to life that establishes safety and security. Familiarity grounds us when things feel up in the air.
3. Observe your thoughts, feeling and emotions. Thoughts are neither good nor bad. It’s the emotions we attach to our thoughts that determine how we feel about a certain situation and how we react.
Life experiences have programmed each of us to uniquely respond in certain ways in different situations. Some see change and uncertainty as an opportunity and embrace it. Others may see the same situation as a disaster causing anxiety and fear about what they can’t control.
The key is to cultivate awareness around your biases in your thinking. What triggers you?
You need to learn to challenge the negative narrative you are telling yourself. Seeing whether the opposite holds true can be a helpful starting point.
4. Keep a journal. This strategyprovides a great reference point forlooking back atpast experiences where there was uncertainty.
By writing down your thoughts and feelings daily, you create a record that may be consulted years or decades later. People who have done this are routinely surprised by the gaps between what they remember feeling and what they wrote at the time.
You’ll be surprised by how that situation that feels so certain now was truly uncertain then–yet you made it through. You’ve danced with uncertainty before, and you’re equipped to do it again.
The Take Home Message
Ultimately, there’s no escape from living with uncertainty for anyone.
No matter how often you check your email, or read the news, no matter how much you worry what your life will be like in five years there are no certainties. Things change. Nothing stays the same forever.
Knowing this it helps to get comfortable with uncertainty. Shifting your mindset offers healthier ways to cope with uncertainty that can be hugely rewarding.
We can feel slightly disoriented and uncertain from recent events. However, at the same time, they offer great potential. The gift of transition is the opportunity for self-reflection, growth, and change.
We’ll respond to it, learn from it, and move into another tomorrow full of endless possibilities.
Gaining greater clarity of our mind and how we manoeuvre the new terrain will help us all.
You can challenge the discomfort of uncertainty by asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the advantages of certainty? What are the disadvantages?
- How much can you be absolutely certain about in life?
- Do you assume bad things will happen just because an outcome is uncertain? What is the likelihood they will?
Hope you found this blog insightful. If you have any thoughts or comments around this topic feel free to share in the comment box below.
If you need help to address issues relating to uncertainty, fear or anxiety in these challenging times please contact me.