7 ways to live with uncertainty and keep worry at bay
Searching for certainty in an ambiguous world
Worry is the major feature of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and intolerance of uncertainty is the force behind worry. Worrying stems from a craving for control. It is the over-thinking that goes into the desire to avoid negative outcomes. We are so afraid of something going wrong that we try to cover every possible outcome in our head. Unfortunately, with every situation, there are a lot of possible outcomes.
What if…what if…what if
Very little in life is certain. Much of what we have to deal with in our day to day working lives is ambiguous. We cannot predict how a project will go, or what pressure will be involved. We cannot foresee all the obstacles we may encounter, or how our managers will react. For worriers, this is a hard space to navigate. “What does my manager think of me?” … “what if I make a mistake?” … “what if the project is a disaster” … “what if my part goes horribly wrong?” … “what if I get in trouble?” … “what if I’m called to a meeting and I don’t have the answers” … “what if I lose my job?” … “What if…what if…what if”.
Much of our lives are spent trying to reduce and manage uncertainty, but to what end? How do we prepare for the unknown? And, even if we accept we cannot, how do we stop trying?
Well, if you are prone to worrying, stopping is a difficult task. We can, however, begin to tackle the problem, and becoming more tolerant of uncertainty is a great place to start. Here are 7 ways you can start to build that tolerance…
1. Be aware that uncertainty is a real problem for you…know it, name it, own it.
The first thing you need to do is simply know the difficulty uncertainty causes you. Admit to yourself, “I cannot tolerate uncertainty!”. Once that knowledge is in your awareness, you can start to do something about it.
Listen for the ‘what if’ questions, or check if your concentration has dipped. Learn to pay attention to your body. What does it feel like when I worry? Do I have butterflies in my stomach? Am I clenching my teeth or hands? Am I staring into the distance? Is my foot tapping? What is my body telling me? You are trying to listen to your body’s cues, so you know the worrying has begun.
Name your thoughts. When you catch yourself trapped in uncertainty, with your thoughts going down rabbit holes, name it. “Future worry”, “uncertainty thoughts”, “control thoughts”, “the What Ifs”, whatever you like.
With compassion and curiosity, acknowledge that you do it. “This is me, this is what I do at the moment. I don’t particularly like it, but I’ve obviously developed it to protect myself somehow. Maybe it isn’t helping me much anymore”. To best tackle this situation, it is best to park any self-criticism or judgement.
2. Look up, look around…you are here…now!
The present moment is an antidote to worry
Anxiety and worry is always future based, it cannot exist in the present moment. When we are worrying, we are lost in a fantasy world. Our eyes are open, but we are not present. We are inward focused, missing everything that is going on around us.
Be always listening to your body. Once you feel the worrying thoughts come on, that is your cue to return to the world around you. To maintain the worry requires our full attention. Engage your senses. Look up. Stretch and look around, left and right. Turn and look behind you. What can you see? Are there any smells? Stand up, if you need to. Really concentrate and try and name five different things you can hear (cars, talking, the clock, the air conditioning, my breathing, etc.).
Slowly rub your hands together. Observe the lines on your hands. Pick up a pen and run your fingers over its shape. Take four deep breaths in and out. Feel the cool air entering through your nostrils, and the warm air leaving past your lips. Embrace the here and now, because when you are present you can deal with the actual issues, and not the ones that are in your head.
3. Your mind is trolling you…learn to defuse from your thoughts
Don’t feed the troll
In Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT), there is a very useful concept called ‘thought defusion’. In short, we are fused with our worrisome thoughts. We take them literally. We see them as important, as they come from ourselves. We engage with them and they wrap us up. But, in truth, they are only words. Just utterances that our mind is firing about, willy-nilly. They are not wise, or threatening. They seem to demand our attention, but actually, they deserve no more attention than that random 1980s song our mind fired up earlier in the day.
Try to see your worrisome thoughts like you would an internet troll. The upsetting comment is there, you can’t change that. What you do have control over is your reaction. If you engage, start an argument, fight back, the troll gets exactly what they want, and the battle begins.
What if you just acknowledge that the comment exists, and just let it be. Allow it to run its course in your mind, without struggle, or trying to avoid it. You won’t feel great in that moment, but the thoughts will not multiply, and the sensation will be over sooner.
So, try this. From step one, above, you have become aware of your intolerance of uncertainty. You have a name for these thoughts. If you begin to feel them coming on, call them out… “future worries” … accept that they are here, but refuse to engage. From step two, you are looking up and getting in touch with the present moment. Now, acknowledge the worrisome thought, but try and step back. Get some distance between you and the thought. Don’t get caught up. Don’t engage.
Don’t feed the troll.
4. Stop seeing worrying as a positive
We can often be fooled into thinking our worrying serves an important purpose. It helps us prepare, keeps us motivated, and on time. It is useful for problem solving, and protects against surprise. It can protect us against negative outcomes, as if we think about all possible outcomes, we may negate the bad ones. It keeps us safe. I can’t let my guard down.
Unfortunately, as much as it may feel like a positive, worrying does none of the above. Studies have shown that people who worry about the future do no better when they actually get there. In fact, we tend to do worse, as we are still inside our own heads, worrying. We are not fully present to deal with the issue. This would suggest that worrying has no benefit.
A further study at Cornell University found that 85% of what people worry about never comes to pass. Of the 15% that did go as predicted, 79% of the participants found that they either handled the problem better than they would have thought, or they learned a valuable lesson from the outcome. Worry, therefore, does seem like valuable time wasted.
5. Postpone your uncertainty worry – set aside 30 mins a day for worry
Worrying gets in the way of problem solving. It requires our full attention. Our minds cannot do two things at once, and the worrying seems much more important, because of the danger it is predicting. The idea of this exercise is that if a worry pops into your head, write it down. This is so you don’t forget any of the things you have to worry about. The worrying piece is then postponed until a designated time in the day that has been set aside specifically to catch up on all the worrying you have on the list. Make it 30-45 minutes, but no more.
This may sound ridiculous, but give it a go, it can be very powerful. It leaves you free to focus on the real issues at hand, safe in the knowledge that none of your worries will be neglected.
6. Bore or mock the worry away
Another thought defusion technique is to repeat a worry that comes into your head one hundred times. Contrary to engaging with the thought, this practice serves to render the thought meaningless.
So, you are in work, and you have a worrisome thought that you will make a mistake on the task you are doing, and get in trouble. Off you go then…“I’m going to mess up and get in trouble”…100 times! By the time you have said the worrisome thought for the hundredth time, you will be bored with it.
Or how about (in your head, of course) singing the thought to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’.
“I’m going to mess up and get in trouble”
“I’m going to mess up and get in trouble”
“I’m going to mess up and get in troooooooooooouble”
“I’m going to mess up and get in trouble”
This undermining of the thought can take its power away, and leave it exposed for what it is. Just a thought.
7. Become more tolerant of uncertainty
if given the choice, we will often pick a negative outcome over an uncertain one
Ultimately, how do you get over your fear of uncertainty? Well, by encountering it…continually. If we expose ourselves, voluntarily, to things we are avoiding and are afraid, we get stronger. Of this there is no doubt.
Often, however, if given the choice, we will often pick a negative outcome over an uncertain one. Why? Because at least with the negative outcome we know the result. We can put it to bed. It’s why so many people will leave a job they are in, because the uncertainty of not knowing how they are doing has gotten too much. They would rather have no job, then be in a job they could possibly fail at. Again, the problem here is the ’possibly’ bit, not the failing. At least failure would bring certainty.
To reduce the role of uncertainty in worry, we can either reduce uncertainty itself, or increase our tolerance for uncertainty. As reducing the uncertainty is not really possible, we are left with becoming more tolerant. We must learn to become more accepting that uncertainty is a natural part of life. We cannot avoid it. Unfortunately, the only way is through it.
Exposure is the way…
start proving to yourself that you can handle obstacles in your life
This process involves gradually exposing yourself to low level uncertainty. Uncertainty that causes some discomfort, and triggers a small amount of worry, but is not too much to handle. For example, would you worry excessively about going into town on Saturday afternoon? If not too much, but you would still plan the day down to the last detail; times of busses, weather checks, where you are going to go for lunch, etc., maybe start with something like this. The idea is to drop trying to predict every possible outcome. Just go into town, and see what happens. Trust that whatever crops up, you will be able to handle it.
That’s the whole point. To prove to ourselves that we can handle obstacles in our lives. As we start experiencing more, and avoiding less, we begin to gain confidence. The idea, then, is to progress through higher level fears, as we have mastered the lower level ones. Always living on the very edge of our comfort zones, as constantly pushing our boundaries is where real growth happens.
So, choose something relatively simple to begin with, and give it a go. Remember to take it slowly. If you feel you need support, find a Counsellor or Psychotherapist who can guide you through this. It’s always good to bounce your ideas and findings off someone impartial.