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Posted 2 years ago

Uncertainty management – how to cope better with the unknown

Do you feel stressed and anxious when things don’t go your way? Do you feel agitated when your plans change last minute?

You’re not alone. Uncertainty tolerance – or our ability to manage and cope with not knowing what is coming – is not automatic to most of us. For the most part, it’s something we need to cultivate and work on in our own time. Why? Because it turns out that the better we’re able to manage perceived uncertainty and accept it, the less likely we are to experience stress and high levels of anxiety.

Uncertainty tolerance is something we’ve all intuitively realised is important in the last year. However, being aware of its importance and actually placing focus on cultivating it are two very different things. My aim with this article is to help you ask the important questions that might enable you to work on developing an attitude of uncertainty tolerance.

After all, with all this extra time, we may as well develop some useful psychological techniques, right? Learning and implementing these will serve you beyond this global pandemic.

The 101 of Managing uncertainty

If you are currently struggling to manage uncertainty, you may perceive worrying to be a useful tool that can prepare you for the worst. In our minds, worrying about everything means that there are no nasty surprises that we haven’t already considered and played through our minds.

Right? Wrong. Worrying gives us the illusion of managing uncertainty, as it makes us feel like we have control over what might happen; but this is a negative thought cycle which then perpetuates itself.

Worrying leads to more worrying, which leads to heightened stress and anxiety levels. We intuitively know this isn’t supportive of our mental health, but it won’t support your physique progress either (to learn more about how and why, read our article on stress).

In fact, ask yourself the following: has your worrying (about COVID, the future, weight loss, weight gain, shows/holidays going ahead) made anything more certain or more predicable? Does worrying really change the outcome of what will happen?

It hasn’t, has it? As such, by over-worrying about uncertain situations and worse-case-scenarios, all you’ve done is worked yourself up and paralysed yourself from taking any controllable action. By now, it should be clear that worrying about uncertainty really isn’t worth it, so here are two strategies that might help you learn how to accept uncertainty and reduce worry:

(1) Challenge the intolerance of uncertainty

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it possible to be certain about everything in life?
  • What are the advantages of requiring certainty, vs disadvantages? Or, how is needing certainty in life helpful and unhelpful?

(2) Acceptance and mindfulness

When tolerance of uncertainty is low, your mind tends to focus on the future. An antidote to this style of thinking is to direct your attention back into the present moment and focus on acceptance. Yes, I know it’s easier said than done, but give the following steps a go:

  • Be aware of what you’re currently thinking and feeling in your body. What are you noticing when you’re needing certainty? Acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, and be curious, maybe saying “Oh that’s really interesting that I feel this way when I’m uncertain about X”.
  • Let go of the need for a quick fix. There are so many examples: uncertain about COVID? Doom scroll through the BBC news app. Uncertain about weight gain? Focus on old pictures and convince yourself you look gross. Uncertain about weight loss? Go onto Instagram and compare yourself to everyone out there. All these short-term fixes seem to provide an immediate relief illusion, but it’s just that, an illusion. Remind yourself that your mind is simply looking for a coping mechanism for uncertainty that isn’t effective. Realising this can help you turn towards strategies that are more effective, such as taking action.
  • Be non-judgemental towards yourself. It’s okay to struggle with uncertainty, as our mind is hardwired to rely on predictable patterns. When you notice these feelings and thoughts emerge into your mind, don’t pull out the fire extinguisher: simply observe them as floating sparks, and take yourself back to the present moment.

I know this is all easier said than done. I know. Uncertainty management is by no means a skill that is simply acquired and preserved – like many useful mindset tools, it comes with continuous practice and refinement. However, as any habit, when it’s practiced for long enough, taking this approach can become second nature – it won’t eliminate the uncertainty (as this is impossible!), but it will most definitely reduce your anxiety and stress levels.

And well… if anything else, less anxiety and stress means more gainz and beanz, right?

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS

This article was based on resources derived from resources available at https://cci.health.wa.gov.au

Please note that you should contact your GP immediately if your current uncertainty anxiety levels are impacting on your day to day functioning