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Top 3 tips for dealing with uncertainty

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To get through the day, we all rely on a certain amount of certainty – a sense that our lives are at least somewhat stable, secure and predictable. But the reality is that life is full of uncertainty – what the weather’s going to be like, how the people around you are going to feel and act, what your day’s going to be like when you step out the door – and pandemic life even more so.

Many of us have had to deal with changes to some of the pillars of our lives – a place to live, a job to support us, family and friends to spend time with, physical and mental health. And we all have to deal with continued uncertainty – what is life going to look like in a year, in a month, in a week, tomorrow?

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, we get that.  It's uncomfortable because we don’t know what’s going to happen and because we aren’t sure how we’ll cope with it.

But how comfortable we are with uncertainty also differs from person to person, depending on things like our personality traits and our experiences growing up. Some people have a higher intolerance of uncertainty – they feel more uncomfortable with uncertainty and their reactions to it are more intense. This can affect what they think, feel, and do when faced with uncertainty.

For example, they might:

  • Imagine the worst-case
  • Spend a lot of time planning and preparing for every possible outcome
  • Seek a lot of reassurance from friends or family on personal decisions
  • Double- or triple-check tasks and plans
  • Feel anxious, stressed and worried
  • Feel paralyzed and avoid things that involve uncertainty

Some of these are ways that people try to cope with uncertainty, but they actually tend to increase our worries and fears. So, how else can you cope with uncertainty, especially if you’re someone who has a hard time with it to begin with?

Remember...uncertainty can also be tolerated.

Here are some tips for how you can learn to cope with and build your tolerance of uncertainty:

  1. Practice acceptance
    Did you ever play that arcade game, Whack-A-Mole, where a mole would appear, and you’d have to whack it down? Then as soon as you’d whacked one down, more would pop up? Trying to eliminate uncertainty can be like that – an exhausting, stressful, and ultimately fruitless exercise, with no fun prizes at the end. There will always be things that we just can’t predict or control. Remind yourself that uncertainty is an inevitable part of life: better to embrace it, or at least learn to accept it, than to fight it.
  1. Figure out what you can control
    In situations where you’re facing a lot of uncertainty or a lot of unknowns, it can be helpful to think about and put effort into what you do know and what you can control.

    For example, if you’ve lost your job, you can’t know 100% whether a company you’re waiting to hear back from is going to hire you. So, try to focus on the things you do have control over: working on your resume, reaching out to contacts, submitting applications, and taking care of yourself while you wait.
  1. Acting ‘as-if’
    Ironically, some of things you might do when you’re having trouble with uncertainty can reinforce the belief that you can’t cope – for example, if you tend to ask for everyone’s advice before making a decision, that can reinforce a lack of trust in your own ability to decide for yourself what’s right for you.

So, think about the things that you do when you’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable about uncertainty: do you seek reassurance? Do you quadruple-check? What do you avoid? And then, catch yourself when you notice that you’re starting to do these things, and act ‘as-if’ you were more tolerant of the uncertainty.

For example, instead of quadruple-checking, only check twice. Acting 'as if' gives you the opportunity to learn that 1) that most of the time, you won’t have missed anything, and 2) the times when you do miss things may be stressful or hard, but you can cope with them. Practicing this repeatedly will get easier over time and will help you build your tolerance of uncertainty.

Life is full of uncertainty, and for most of us there’s a lot more of it right now. Focus on what you can be reasonably sure of, and trust that you will get through the things that are unknown. You might even find that some good can come out of uncertainty.

If dealing with uncertainty is causing a lot of distress and getting in the way of your life, consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional for help. MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your program.

Selected references: 
  • Hawes, M. T., Farrell, M. R., Cannone, J. L., Finsaas, M. C., Olino, T. M., & Klein, D. N. (2021). Early childhood temperament predicts intolerance of uncertainty in adolescence. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 80, 102390.
  • Rettie, H., & Daniels, J. (2021). Coping and tolerance of uncertainty: Predictors and mediators of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Psychologist, 76(3), 427-437.
  • Shihata, S., McEvoy, P. M., Mullan, B. A., & Carleton, R. N. (2016). Intolerance of uncertainty in emotional disorders: What uncertainties remain? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 41, 115-124.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.