November 13, 2016
By Ava-Ann Allman, PhD, Psychologist
I am a planner. I love doing research, making lists and weighing the pros and cons. For me, there’s a real comfort in knowing what‘s coming up so I can be prepared. The thing is, it’s not always possible to know. By its nature, life is uncertain, and if we spend too much time looking for absolute certainty, we miss out on many amazing possibilities. For some, the unknown is thrilling. They look at it as an exciting adventure, regardless of the outcome. For others, the unknown is extremely unpleasant, and they are very anxious about possible negative outcomes. This is known as intolerance of uncertainty (Wever et al, 2014). For these individuals, doubt or uncertainty are seen as terrible and unbearable, and they will do almost anything to avoid these feelings. Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with a number of disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression (Carleton et al, 2012). One way in which many clients feel that they can deal with uncertainty is by worrying. They often tell me that worrying helps them to prepare for the worst, and gives them a sense of control. Indeed, worrying may lead to a reduction in feeling uncertain, which then leads to even more worrying to continue to keep the feeling at bay. Whenever I speak to a client about this, I always ask one question: does the worrying actually make things more predictable? Has your worry ever changed the outcome of a situation? While it may make you feel better for a short time, over the long term has it been successful or has it become a problem in and of itself? Okay fine – three questions :). An important thing to work on is increasing tolerance for uncertainty. Remember, it is normal to have some fear of the unknown, but when this fear leads to excessive worry and avoidance, it may be time to practice challenging this fear. Here are a couple of things that can help.
When you have the “What ifs” floating around, ask yourself the questions on this sheet and write the answers down. Writing them down is important because it allows you time to think and reflect on them, rather than dismissing them quickly.
Mindfulness is a state of awareness focused on the present (read more about it here in Natsumi’s post). Because it is about the present moment, that means that we are not looking to the what ifs of the future. When you notice these what ifs, acknowledge them and make note of what is happening for you while they are present. Then, allow them to pass. Don’t engage with them, or try to get rid of them, just observe them and remind yourself that they are just thoughts (read more about thought defusion in Lisa’s post). Finally, know that they will come back. Not because you failed, just because that’s what thoughts do. When you notice them again, be proud of yourself for noticing, allow them to pass, and bring yourself back to the present. The future is definitely unknown, and that can be tough. But why sacrifice experiencing what is actually happening now, worrying about something that may or may not happen?
Carleton, RN, Mulvogue, MK, Thibodeau, MA, McCabe, RE, Antony, MM & Asmundson, GJG. (2012). Increasingly certain about uncertainty: Intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26 (3), 468-479.
Wever, M. Smeets, P & Sternheim, L. (2014). Neural correlates of intolerance of uncertainty in clinical disorders. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 27 (4), 345-353.