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D o you ever find it hard to manage uncertainty, feeling worried or anxious when you don’t know what is going to happen? For example, waiting for a test or exam result,  moving to a new place or changing jobs?

Uncertainty and fear of the unknown

My life is a series of unknowns at the moment and has been for a while. After our house burnt down nearly a year ago we are still fighting the insurance company and have no idea when it will be resolved, how much money they will give us to rebuild, when we can start on the architectural plans and when we will finally be able to move back home. At times I have found it hard to manage the uncertainty. It’s been unsettling and looking into the future can feel scary at times. 

Although this fear of uncertainty is not often spoken about, I don’t think I’m alone.

Humans have always been scared of the unknown. When Christopher Columbus sailed across the the ocean, people were frightened he was going to sail right off the end of the earth. 

The unknown makes us uncomfortable for the obvious reasons that we are not sure of the outcome and therefore we do not understand the consequences. 

Psychology research suggests we generally like to be able to anticipate consequences. This makes total sense. If we know what to expect in a given situation, we can deal with it. Even if the situation is stressful, if we have an idea of what we’re getting into or what might happen, we are typically more confident in our ability to face it without falling apart.

The unknown makes us uncomfortable for the obvious reasons that we are not sure of the outcome and therefore we do not understand the consequences. 

Life is unpredictable

The problem with this of course, is that life is unpredictable. It’s impossible to know exactly what is going to happen in the future.

Someone I know is waiting for some medical test results at the moment. It’s not the first time she has had to wait for test results and she finds the wait excruciating every time. It’s the trying to manage uncertainty that causes her such problems; it’s a familiar cycle. She tells me, “Frustration sets in, followed by anger, followed by guilt followed by depression. It’s a cycle I know well that I need to break.”

As John Allen Paulos, (the American mathematics author and speaker) says, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” 

Research has shown that there is a correlation between people who find it hard to cope with uncertainty and anxiety, worry, and stress. 

The less comfortable someone is with not knowing what to expect in a given situation, the higher his or her anxiety is. Uncertainty causes anxiety, leads to worry, and increases stress.

And naturally, those who are more able to manage uncertainty are generally happier, calmer and more confident. 

manage uncertainty

How to manage uncertainty

If you are currently facing uncertainty, keep reading, it can be managed. You just need the right approach. Here is what we know works:

  1. Acknowledge what you can and can’t control. Are there factors in your control? 

If the answer is no: 

Accept that you cannot change the outcome. Ask yourself what you’re achieving by worrying about it? Would letting go feel like freedom? Take this time to refocus your attention something else. I’m sure there are other things that could use your attention in the present moment.

If the answer is yes:

Focus on these. Do what you can to schedule in and complete the tasks you need to do in order to move towards the outcome you want. 

2. Recognise your thoughts and emotions

Sometimes it’s less about the uncertainty and more about how your thoughts spiral from the uncertainty. For example, moving to a new city is has many unknowns but it’s the worry and fear that makes it worse: you might worry that you will find it hard to make friends, that you will be lonely, then the fear grips you that you you will be miserable, that you’ll be sobbing on the sofa on your own each night… Perhaps you then get frustrated and angry with yourself or your partner that you have to move… Notice when your thoughts and emotions are spiralling and reel them back in.

3. Carry on

Sometimes the unknown is something you have to wait for. Like my experience with our insurer, or waiting for some test results, or the result of a job interview. In these situations we can often put our lives on hold as we await the outcome. But this creates more uncertainty as we end up with more balls in the air and live in a kind of limbo. Ultimately this is not helpful for anxiety levels and so I encourage you to carry on doing the things you would normally do. Make plans and continue to live as normally as you can.

4. Use your stress reduction techniques

If you’re dealing with uncertainty, there’s a good chance you are feeling stressed. So make sure you are doing what you need to do to release cortisol from your system. I highly recommend meditation as a stress reduction tool. Exercise of course also works well.

Final thoughts

Recently I’ve come to think that uncertainty is only a bad thing if you let it be. I understand the fear but I’ve also come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is a normal, natural part of life. Everything is changing all the time and if we embrace change, we move forward. If we don’t, we stagnate. Stepping into the unknown develops our character and our strength and helps us to realise our full potential. 

I’d like to leave you with something a close friend once told me, “Stepping out of your comfort zone is where the magic really happens”. 

Stepping out of your comfort zone is where the magic really happens

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