Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty

A hand holds a compass facing mountain views.

Life’s full of twists and turns. Sometimes they’re scary. Like when we’re waiting for medical test results. Other times they’re joyful. Like bringing home a new baby.

But no matter what we’re dealing with, one thing remains true: We never quite know what the future holds.

Some people consider that exciting. Others get unnerved. Since you’re reading this article, we’re going to assume you’re in the latter camp.

And that’s okay! In fact, research shows that it’s a totally normal response.

The science of uncertainty

Consider this 2016 study. The participants said they felt more stressed when receiving mild, unpredictable electric shocks rather than anticipated ones. (Their dilated pupils and increased stress hormone levels seemed to agree.)

The reason? Our brains are wired to predict things. It helps us make sense of the world. Uncertainty disrupts that, causing stress.

Now, some stress is normal in the face of uncertainty. But it can become unhealthy. It all depends on how you respond to it.

For instance, some people try to bypass this stress by constantly worrying. It makes them feel like they’re taking action. Like they’re in control.

Others try to avoid vague situations completely.

But avoiding uncertain situations can lead to depressive thoughts, like thinking a situation is hopeless. And chronic worrying can cause anxiety.

This can create a vicious cycle. That’s because both anxiety and depression can make you less tolerant of uncertainty.

You can break this cycle, though. The key is to teach your brain how to make peace with uncertainty.

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Healthier ways to deal with uncertainty

Exactly how do you overcome your brain’s preference for predictability? Arm yourself with coping skills that can ground you in the moment and mental strategies that can help overhaul your outlook on uncertainty.

Build your coping toolkit

  • Check your thinking traps. In the face of uncertainty, we usually don’t have a lot of information. Our brains are great at filling that void with negative predictions. You may find yourself jumping to conclusions. Or, imagining worst-case scenarios. Now here’s the good news: You can become more aware of these thoughts and start to change them. AbleTo’s 3Cs Guided Journal walks you through the process.
  • Strengthen your mindfulness “muscle.” Focusing on the present moment pulls your thoughts of doom back from the brink. Mastering this skill takes practice. AbleTo’s Discovering Mindful Awareness meditation is a good place to start. Bonus: It’s only 3 minutes long. Not a meditation fan? Here are 7 ways to be mindful without meditating.
  • Control what you can. Uncertainty can make you feel like things are spiraling out of control. Focusing on actions within your power can help steady you in the storm. Can you maintain 1 healthy habit, like eating a nutritious breakfast, every day? Can you use your problem-solving skills to improve 1 part of a stressful situation?

Shift your mindset

  • Accept life as it is. It can be tempting to prepare for every possible scenario. But that’s usually a waste of time and energy. Instead, try to accept that life is full of ups and downs. Respond to them as they come rather than trying to plan ahead.
  • Trust in your ability to bounce back. Fear of the unknown often stems from the belief that a negative event will overwhelm us. But that’s not always the case. You’re likely more resilient than you think.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself mentally and physically, even if only in small ways. It’s a reminder that you can tolerate distress. Facing discomfort head-on can also help you overcome the pattern of avoiding it.

Face your fear of the unknown

It’s normal to feel unsettled when you don’t know what to expect. But remember: With change comes growth. Give yourself the time and grace you need to shift your perspective.

Need help putting these tips into practice?

You may be eligible for virtual therapy, coaching, or on-demand self care from AbleTo. Each program is designed by clinicians and grounded in science. Sign up today and get the support you deserve.

By Kelli McElhinney, LCSW

Kelli is a licensed clinical social worker and a Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo. She has more than 10 years of experience working with clients in healthcare and outpatient mental health settings.

Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.

Photo by yanik88/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.

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