Living with uncertainty
Uncertainty is something that most of us would probably choose to have less of in our lives. As humans we crave security and predictability, particularly in the most important areas of our lives such as our work, where we live, relationships and our health. When uncertainty increases in these areas, it is common for us to experience greater feelings of anxiety and stress.
Looking back over this year, to put it mildly, much has occurred that for many has shattered the illusion of how predictable and stable our lives are. With the Covid 19 pandemic we are living in a situation that for most of us is unfamiliar, confusing and frightening at times and still with no clear end in sight. In different areas of our lives such as our health, social relationships and employment there is still much uncertainty compared to what we are used to.
And though we may be living in a time with a higher level of uncertainty compared to previous years, uncertainty has and will always be an unavoidable part of life. We don't know what our future holds. Much of our lives and what we experience is out of our control. And so being able to tolerate and live with uncertainty becomes an important part of not only our own mental health, but how we choose to live our lives as individuals and as a society.
The danger of avoiding uncertainty
When faced with uncertainty in an area of life it can be tempting to ignore it. Sometimes this is fine, particularly in regards to areas where the stakes and potential impact are low. But this strategy can lead to problems arising in more important areas of your life such as your income, relationships or safety. When we have information available to us that allows for some reasonable planning and preemptive measures to be taken but we don't because we hope everything will naturally work out of its own accord we can put ourselves in unnecessary risky situations and we also give up a lot of our agency and power.
It can also occur in situations where things are unknown or unclear but we really want a potential positive outcome to occur and so we ignore the present uncertainty of the situation. For example, when people start dating, often the excitement experienced when people meet someone with whom they feel high attraction and connection can lead them to feel that they are in a more serious and committed relationship than they actually are.
Staying with the uncertainty of the situation until the boundaries of the relationship have been established and understood by both parties might be difficult, especially if you have a strong attachment to a certain outcome. by acknowledging the uncertainty, it helps you to stay with the reality of the situation whilst things are unknown. Not doing so can lead to one or both parties becoming too emotionally invested too quickly and if things don't work out then this can be a painful and disorientating experience.
The danger of overreacting to uncertainty
On the flip-side, an unhelpful way that we can react to uncertainty in our lives is by trying to control everything and planning excessively to leave nothing to chance. It’s advantageous to have some level of planning and preparation for risk, but after a certain point the amount of energy and effort put into this yields diminishing returns and can in fact leave us in a worse situation than minimal preparation.
An example of this on a low level, is the panic buying that occurred as a response to uncertainty about food and stable goods earlier this year, particularly in regard to people that excessively stockpiled toilet paper. Not only do they now have to deal with the practicalities of having a large amount of loo roll to store, but they also have to deal with the high level of social shame and humiliation.
Often when we try to control every aspect of a situation and dont allow for uncertainty it results in a heightened state of anxiety that will tire us out and can also increase friction and damage our relationships with work colleagues, friends and family. We can excessively check and seek reassurance from others or not trust in their ability to deal with situations from our need to control and this can be frustrating and stressful for all involved.
Overreacting to uncertainty can also cause us to focus so much on one threat or area of our lives, that we can end up missing significant opportunities or dangers in others. This can particularly be the case when there is something about the risk that seems more unexpected, spectacular and sensational. For example, things like the corona virus, the threat from terrorism or dying in a plane crash each fit some of these categories. But risks such as car accidents, heart disease and cancer that are the leading causes of deaths for adults, often concern us less and we often avoid lifestyle changes that could greatly reduce their likelihood.
We all have different levels of uncertainty that we can tolerate. Sometimes they can result in varying attitudes to risk in different areas of our life. For instance, I love doing some activities that are inherently risky such as cycling and skiing. I also hate going on rollercoasters and I usually have a mini existential crisis each time I’m taking off on a plane.
I’m far more likely to get into trouble or hurt myself cycling than being on a rollercoaster or flying, but part of how I cope with that uncertainty is feeling that I have some influence and control over the situation and also repeated exposure to it which brings the uncertainty to a low manageable level for me. With flying and going on rollercoasters even though my rational part of my brain knows that I'm pretty safe, the lack of control I feel once I’m onboard makes the level of uncertainty harder for me to manage.
So I avoid going on rollercoasters with little negative cost to my life. Avoiding flying would have more serious consequences for my life so I have had to manage my difficult feelings here rather than avoid them. I have found that repeated exposure to flying, finding ways to calm myself down and accepting my lack of control has helped to mitigate the arising anxious feelings that come up from the uncertainty, though they are still slightly present.
The point is we all have a limit to how much uncertainty we can tolerate. There’s no shame in finding uncertainty uncomfortable or difficult in any area of your life. You’re certainly not alone in that and it is part of being human. But there are things you can do to help make it more manageable and tolerable so it doesn’t run your life. Here are some ways that might help below:
Staying with the present and what is known
Part of how many of us deal with uncertain situations is to worry and spend a great deal of mental activity thinking about future possibilities that have not happened, and might not even happen too. However, the trouble with this is that when we start worrying and fantasising it never gives us any catharsis or changes the situation. Furthermore, when we worry we can feel like these future possible situations are true and actually happening right now. But as they aren't, there is nothing we can do to respond to these fantasies and so we create an impossible situation for us to deal with. It’s like being stuck in a bad dream. And therefore we need to learn how to wake ourselves up from this.
To help with this, it's important to be able to recognise when your focus and attention is in fantasy and to then bring your awareness back to the present. Ways to recognise when you are doing this include noticing when you’re having thoughts that start with “what if”. Stay with what is known and if you find yourself getting caught in repetitive thinking, take your attention away from your thoughts and start noticing your felt sensations in your body and what’s going on in your environment. Mindfulness exercises and meditation can help to cultivate your ability to stay in the present too.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
Part of the difficulty with uncertainty is that it's uncomfortable. You can help manage uncertainty in your life by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. We can feel that by feeling anxious about the future or uncomfortable that there is something wrong with us, that we aren't coping. But it's alright to feel this way. As mentioned before we are wired to seek predictability so it's understandable to feel uncomfortable when faced with uncertainty.
Instead of pushing the feeling away, make friends with it. When we deny the existence of a feeling, instead of quashing it, it often makes it worse and we create additional suffering for ourselves. The more we can relax and accept the feeling of being uncomfortable or anxious, the less space it takes up in our minds. One thing to consider that might help with this is that even if we feel uncertain or uncomfortable we can still live our lives. We don't always have to feel in the mood or great to do something which we know is important for us or necessary.
Take action on what you do know and trust in your ability to cope as things arise
As mentioned before, uncertainty can often result in people worrying about potential future situations. A better way to use this energy however may be to take action based on what you know and what you can control in a situation. This can help move you from an anxious mindset to a problem solving mindset.
For example, if you were to have unfortunately lost your job during this difficult time, you can’t directly control if you get a new one, but you can still control how many jobs you apply to and how much energy you put into job applications and networking. Or depending upon your circumstances you could decide that you might try something different and start a different career or learn a new skillset to help you find a new role.
When we feel anxious about future scenarios we often believe that if something were to happen we wouldn't be able to cope. This feeling might be based on past experience or beliefs but we often downplay how successful we are at adapting to difficult circumstances or challenges. This is not to deny that sometimes we may feel like we are struggling or that things are hard. But the more you can stay with a problem solving attitude and focus on the present and what is known the more able you will be in dealing with what comes up. Sometimes it can be helpful to look back at past endeavours and difficult times in your life to remember that you got through them and you still have that ability inside you now.
Reduce your anxiety and stress levels
In situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty and little to control, focusing your efforts on reducing your stress levels and looking after yourself can be one way of channeling your energies. Things like doing regular exercise, eating healthy meals, connecting with others, making sure you get enough sleep, spending time in nature, doing something creative have all been shown to reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being. Meditation and breathing exercises as mentioned before can be helpful for many to reduce feelings of anxiety and help you feel more grounded.
The shadow side of uncertainty
Perhaps one way of accepting the part of uncertainty in our lives is to reflect on the benefits it gives to us. Uncertainty is often seen in a negative light but perhaps we rarely acknowledge the positive side to it.
Without uncertainty, everything would be predictable but things would also be far more fixed and stagnant. Uncertainty and the concept that there is an unknown future allows us to have the freedom to make choices and not have our lives predetermined. Without uncertainty, our lives would lack excitement and the possibility for growth or change would be severely reduced.
When things become too fixed and determined it leads to stagnation, outdated ways of living and ideas lasting longer than is useful and general decline and entropy. Consider an empty room like a prison cell. It’s very constant, it’s very predictable, there’s not much uncertainty to it. It's also incredibly boring. And if you were to be stuck in it with nothing new coming into it and no way for you to get out of it, well, being stuck there would be a death sentence.
When romantic relationships become too predictable they inevitably lose some of the spark and excitement which they had when things were less set and fixed. Ironically if this is not recognised and addressed it can potentially lead to future instability and insecurity in the relationship if people’s needs for excitement and passion aren't met.
There can be a beauty to what comes out from uncertainty, it is what allows us to appreciate the uniqueness in art and nature. Often what we find interesting is experiencing something that we haven't witnessed before. Generally we like the uncertainty of not knowing the end of stories before we have read them and we don't want stories spoiled for us by knowing plot twists beforehand.
Sometimes when we need to make changes in our lives and even though they may be for the best, we will be faced with dealing with uncertainty by stepping into the unknown.
If you are finding it difficult to cope with uncertainty in your life counselling can help to develop your ability to manage it more effectively. I am offering counselling sessions over the phone and online using webcam. If you are interested in finding out more about counselling or booking an initial counselling session email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text me on 07480 441993.