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How to Manage Uncertainty and Reduce Stress

What is Uncertainty?

Uncertainty is not being sure, not knowing the outcome, not being able to rely on an outcome, or be definite about something before it happens. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? So what if we can’t be sure? Surprises can be fun!

But our need for certainty is innate. It provides us with feelings of safety and comfort. As we’re built for survival, feeling safe is important to us and reduces feelings of stress. That’s why humans love routine, order, and certainty. We’re creatures of habit. We like knowing steps one, two, and three will take us from A to B.

The trouble is, apart from the fact none of us are getting out of here alive, nothing in life is certain! Things are constantly changing, so while we crave certainty, uncertainty is an inevitable part of life.

Not all uncertainty is bad. I’m sure you can think of times in your life when it’s been a positive. Besides, what would a life of complete certainty feel like? It would probably be quite boring!

However, high levels of constant uncertainty can cause problems. Uncertainty fuels worry, and worry fuels more uncertainty, creating stress. In the short-term, this is unpleasant, and in the long-term it’s bad news for our mental and physical health.

Why Do We Struggle with Uncertainty?

In my clinical practice, I see many people who struggle with uncertainty. The situation has often developed due to a number of factors. Sometimes the person has had a lot of uncertainty in their life, such as house moves, relationship changes, losses or job changes. The impact of this is exacerbated when these changes are out of their control and happen close together.

I also see people who struggle with uncertainty because they’ve never experienced any change. Their lives have always been very certain and settled, but they’re aware they’ll have to deal with uncertainty eventually and that it will create stress when they do. They work hard to avoid it and miss out on building resilience.

Sometimes, we develop beliefs about ourselves that aren’t always accurate, but fuel how we function. Beliefs that might fuel uncertainty are ‘I don’t cope’, ‘I won’t cope well’, ‘I don’t manage unplanned events well’, or ‘I can’t manage anxiety’.

Is Reducing Uncertainty the Solution?

Here are some common ways people try to reduce uncertainty in their lives:

  • Worrying
  • Actively avoiding new things and/or change
  • Generally over-planning and making lists
  • Analysing every possibility and/or outcome
  • Procrastinating over decisions to avoid making the wrong choice
  • Over-researching purchases or decisions in order to gain certainty
  • Asking far too many questions and getting too much information
  • Asking for lots of reassurance
  • Checking and re-checking

 

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

When we try to make things in our world as certain as possible, we have to be very in-tune with everything that’s uncertain or has the potential to go wrong. This type of danger-focused mind-set is an unhappy place to be for long periods of time. Focusing on reducing uncertainty also prevents us from enjoying being in the moment.

How to Manage Uncertainty

‘Embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.’ – Mandy Hale

Because uncertainty is an inevitable part of life, the only way forward is to learn and develop ways to increase our tolerance to it. The benefits of this include less worry and anxiety, the ability to take more risks, and greater confidence in your decision-making skills. You might also experience less stress, feel more laid back, or find life gets more exciting.

Here are a few ideas to help you as you learn how to manage uncertainty…

Learn to Spot It – Increasing awareness is always the first step towards changing our habits or behaviour. Writing things down helps you become a more reflective observer of your mind, rather than simply caught up in it. Try spending 5 minutes each day journaling about how you’re currently managing uncertainty. What are you struggling with? How does uncertainty make you feel?

Getting things out of your head and down on paper might help you view uncertainty from a different perspective. For more advice, read my post about how to create a journaling habit.

Consider Your Current Strategies – Once you know more about how you currently deal with uncertainty, look at the advantages and disadvantages of managing it this way. Are there any alternative strategies you could trial or put in place?

Be in the Moment – Uncertainty is a very future focused mind-set, so training your mind to stay in the here and now is a great antidote. Mindfulness is an excellent tool for this.

Create More Uncertainty – Creating and allowing more uncertainty into your life means you’ll ultimately become more tolerant to the experience and it won’t cause as much stress. Take more risks, break routines, and plan to do something different. Start small and keep it simple but keep at it. Do something new every day.

Our brain is like a muscle, so however you chose to work it, it’ll develop and get stronger. Allowing more uncertainty into your life builds your tolerance and makes you more resilient to it.

Acceptance – Practicing acceptance of what we cannot control, change or alter is a much more peaceful life to live. We can only do our best each day, and then we need to accept the uncertainty of our lives and roll with changes.

Remember, what we resist persists. So, when we seek certainty, we often find ourselves facing more uncertainty. The key is to try and embrace it. I’m always happy to help, so do get in touch if you’d like more guidance or advice.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.