To quote Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While perhaps this is an oversimplification, he’s correct in conveying that certainty is much rarer in life than we’d like to believe. And, as much as we struggle against uncertainty, learning to accept that there are very few things we can know “for sure” can be a superpower.
Emotional disorders are often propelled by the common characteristic of “uncertainty intolerance” (UI). People with panic disorder struggle with UI about when the next panic attack will occur. People with generalized anxiety worry excessively because of UI about future events. People with OCD experience UI about whether they might have a contaminated environment. People with social anxiety experience UI regarding how others perceive them.
When UI and the accompanying discomfort occurs, a person is often inclined to try whatever is necessary to seek certainty (and, hopefully, “get rid of” the discomfort). This might mean frantically cleaning, checking one’s body multiple times for symptoms of potential illness or asking loved ones for reassurance that a feared event won’t occur. This might also mean uncontrollable worry (disguised as “problem solving” or “planning”) or avoidance of any place or situation where a feared event “might” occur. The problem is that all these efforts to guarantee certainty don’t work! Instead, they reinforce the need to do them the next time and they sap the person’s confidence in their ability to handle the discomfort that comes with not knowing.
Conversely, learning to accept (be willing to allow) and tolerate uncertainty is beneficial for
- reducing anxiety by removing the “anxious behaviors” which are meant to avoid uncertainty (but are actually driving the distress).
- increasing flexibility by practicing a nimble approach to adapting to change.
- building confidence by learning, again and again, that whatever the outcome may be, we are able to manage.
If you recognize yourself in this blog post about UI, here’s how you can cultivate tolerance of uncertainty and make it your superpower:
Step 1: Brainstorm your UI behaviors (the things you do to seek certainty) such as spending a lot of time checking; googling endlessly; asking others for reassurance multiple times; avoiding uncertain situations, etc.).
Step 2: Rank your UI behaviors from Step 1. Next to each behavior, indicate the number on a 1-10 scale of how much distress not doing this behavior would cause you. Now, order your list by ranking the behaviors from lowest to highest number.
Step 3. Practice at least 3 times per week resisting the behaviors from your list, beginning with the lowest ranked items. The more often you do this, the faster you’ll see results!
Step 4: Record your experiences. Each time you practice resisting a UI behavior from your list, note how you felt in the moment, how confident you were in your ability to manage the situation, what the outcome was and how you handled it.
Regardless of whether you are struggling against uncertainty (adding to your anxiety) or leaning into/learning to tolerate uncertainty, the outcome will be the same. Choosing to live according to your values—while accepting uncertainty—can lead to a much more peaceful existence.
If you’re struggling with tolerating uncertainty or looking for anxiety treatment, Travco Behavioral Health can help. Contact us today at 330.286.0050!