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Tolerating Uncertainty

Today it is so easy for us to take steps to minimize the unknown. We can look at photographs of food from a restaurant we want to dine at before we visit. Use technology to try out different paint colors in a room before committing to a hue. Research acquaintances we meet on the internet before we get to “know” them. Not knowing what is going to happen next or being unsure of other people’s thoughts can elicit worry. Dealing with uncertainty is an unavoidable part of the human experience. The extent to which an individual can tolerate uncertainty can impact our mental health. Individuals with high intolerance to uncertainty are more likely to have an anxiety disorder over time. Some people take extensive measures to minimize perceived risks associated with uncertainty. They may engage in:

  • Excessive checking

    • Excessively rereading an email before sending it

    • Reaching out to loved ones to ensure they are safe even without information that their safety has been threatened

  • Reassurance seeking

    • Checking in with friends regularly to ensure they aren’t “mad” at you

    • Seeking feedback from others on decisions you make, even decisions that are relatively minor

  • Avoidance

    • Avoiding situations where the outcomes are too uncertain such as attending a party or interviewing for a new job

    • Avoiding making decisions in case there is a possibility that you’ll make a wrong one

You may see this list and think, why are these behaviors a problem? The problem is that in the short term these behaviors are effective at quelling our anxiety as they provide us with an illusion of control and a sense of relief. However, in the long-term by relying on these behaviors we become entrenched in a cycle that intensifies our anxiety over time. As time passes, we have an increased need for more reassurance and may experience lower confidence in our own abilities. This may ultimately result in us avoiding committing to decisions and can result in a diminished quality of life. When we engage in any of these maladaptive coping strategies, we essentially reinforce the belief that we are unable to tolerate the discomfort associated with uncertainty.

The good news is that we can build our tolerance to uncertainty by leaning into it. Try these strategies to increase your tolerance to uncertainty:

  1. Resist living in the future and accept where you are right now. Practice attentional control or mindfulness to attend to the present.

  2. Check in with yourself. What emotions are you feeling? What thoughts are popping up? If you are feeling anxious and find that you are thinking of the worst possible outcome in a situation. Pause and do the following:

    1. Ask yourself, do I have evidence to support this belief?

    2. If this worst-case scenario did present itself, would I be able to manage it?Sometimes we catastrophize and this type of questioning can help us recognize that truly terrible outcomes are unlikely and that we have the skills and resources to manage disappointments.

  3. Reflect and notice. Make a list of behaviors that you engage in to reduce your discomfort. Be as specific as possible. Then make a game plan to slowly reduce or postpone those behaviors. If you normally recheck an email several times before hitting send, see if you can reduce your proofing to only twice. If you normally text friends after a dinner out to seek reassurance that they had fun, resist this urge, and postpone your communication till later the next day.

  4. Do you typically avoid tasks and situations to manage anxiety? Instead try approaching to reduce your distress. Make a plan for big decisions or tasks by breaking them down into smaller more manageable activities that are time-bound. Reframe thoughts to reflect on previous successes as evidence you will succeed or make the right choice. Make a list of resources you possess in order to accomplish goals. Then write down the anticipated benefits of finally tackling this fear.

  5. Remind yourself that although you may not be able to control the future, you are always in control of how you choose to respond to situations.

If you or your child struggles with managing worry counseling can help. Contact Dr. Amanda today to learn more about counseling services.

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