People who have difficulty controlling their anxiety generally worry a lot about a lot of things. This is known as generalized anxiety. One factor that often fuels generalized anxiety is difficulty accepting the absence of certainty. For most people, uncertainty about important areas of life is unpleasant. It may seem as though life would be easier if you knew how everything will turn out in advance. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic expectation. With life comes uncertainty. People who struggle with this often end up worrying about things they have very little control over, causing undue anxiety and stress.
A solution to fighting uncertainty… is simply accepting uncertainty. By choosing to willingly tolerate not knowing how situations will turn out, we expend less energy fighting unnecessary battles, getting tied up in knots about things in ways that is unhelpful. Acceptance does not necessarily mean enjoying uncertainty. It merely means acknowledging that there is a degree of the unknown in everything we do, and choosing not to fight this reality. Following are ways you can learn to turn your mind toward acceptance of uncertainty:
Weigh the pros and cons of accepting uncertainty: Identify the reasons fighting uncertainty feels helpful or safe, as well as the ways in which it is ineffective. Chances are the cons outweigh the pros. Being mindful of this can help you drop the struggle and embrace the unknown.
Identify areas of your life in which you’re already accepting of uncertainty: Chances are you’re already doing this, either with traffic jams along your commute, visiting a new restaurant, or meeting new people. Take a moment to consider how accepting some degree of uncertainty is helpful in these situations, and apply the same attitude with more challenging areas of your life.
Analyze what uncertainty means to you: Sometimes without being aware of it, we automatically associate uncertainty with a negative outcome. If you do this, take a step back from this thinking pattern and really identify whether there’s any evidence for this. Take another moment and identify the evidence against this assumption. Chances are by thinking about uncertainty from this new perspective it may seem less threatening, and not necessarily negative.
Imagine what life would look like without uncertainty: Although a sense of certainty may be helpful for planning, it’s likely that too much certainty would make life pretty dull. How enjoyable would movies be if you knew exactly what was going to happen every step of the way? And with absolute certainty, there would be no pleasant surprises. Envisioning what would happen if we really got our wish and everything was more certain may cause us to think twice and consider that uncertainty comes with some benefits we normally overlook.
The next time you tense up when you encounter a feeling of uncertainty, bring to mind these different ways of relating to the situation, and see what happens. You may find that you can more calmly handle whatever it is that’s on your plate, and you may just be able to appreciate some of the benefits of uncertainty.
This technique for reducing anxiety comes from a cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety disorders that has been shown to be effective in significantly reducing symptoms of anxiety in 70-80% of patients (Durham, 1995). Compare that to traditional talk therapy, which helps about 30% of patients with generalized anxiety, and takes twice as long. Click here for more information about cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders.
Durham, R.C. (1995). Comparing treatments for generalized anxiety disorder: Reply. British Journal of Psychiatry, 166, 266-267.
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