Dealing with Uncertainty

There is always uncertainty about the future. Worry and nervousness are usually about what will happen in the future. We worry about things that have not yet happened. There is bound to be something unknown about the future. Worries may appear to be about what has happened in the past, but this is mainly an illusion.

Although people say “I am worried that what I said may have offended someone” or “I am bothered about having lost my glasses” their worry is about the future effects of past events. If I have said something offensive, then I will be disliked or rejected. If I have lost my glasses then I will be inconvenienced and have to buy a new pair. Worry, in this way, refers to some “unfinished business; otherwise the matter would either be forgotten or be a cause for feelings associated with the past, such as sadness or regret, rather than the future, such as anxiety and worry.

From this it follows that worry conceals hidden predictions, such as about the awful things that may happen, or about one’s own inability to cope with them, or both. Therefore, it is useful to identify and consider the predictions that are being made, which are often exaggerated or concern hidden guesses of the mind-reading variety about what others are thinking.

It can help to ask yourself some questions:

  • What am I predicting? Or supposing will happen? Or expecting?
  • How can I discover whether my prediction is correct?

Sally was nervous about preparing a report to meet a deadline at work. She was predicting that she would be unable to complete it on time, and also that she could not handle the argument that would ensue. It turned out that her first prediction was correct. Facing up to it helped her to think seriously about what to do. She drafted most of the report, indicating the parts that would need to be completed later. She took the notes she had prepared about these to the meeting with her supervisor. She calmly explained why there was a delay. She estimated, realistically as she could, when the completed report would be available. She was surprised to find how many things she could do to alleviate the difficulty she was in, and her second prediction, that she would not be able to handle an argument was shown to be completely irrelevant, as no argument happened. Having made the specific predictions beforehand, when in the throes of the worry and fear, Sally was able to reassess her worries with the facts at her fingertips. She concluded that she was much more resourceful than she had feared.

Therefore, if you write down your predictions, then you can check out later whether you were correct, and also think more clearly about problems that you may have to deal with. On the next occasion you will be empowered to challenge your predictions more effectively. Worry and nervousness die away as your confidence increases.

Question your assumptions

Sometimes it seems very difficult to put your finger on exactly what you are so nervous or worried about. The worry seems to come in vague terms: “What did they think of me?” “Suppose something goes wrong?” “What if I get in a muddle?” “Something dreadful might happen.” The root of the problem in this case may be in underlying beliefs or meanings that are rather difficult to put into precise words. Sally expressed her sense of vulnerability by stating that she was not sure that she was “any good at managing by herself.” Deep down she believed that being no good at coping on her own meant that she would never be confident. The sense of inadequacy that she felt resulted in her feeling especially vulnerable and at risk. In her case this was a longstanding state of mind. She made the assumption, without being aware of it, that she would be unable to cope, just accepting the nervousness and worry that followed as inevitable and familiar. What she discovered, as she learned to deal with her nerves and worry more effectively, was that her assumption had prevented her from building up self-reliance and coping skills, and from using the resources that she definitely had in abundance, more effectively.

Living with Uncertainty

Uncertainty about the future can be a major source of worry for a lot of us. Many different situations can create uncertainty. Examples include: the threat of being made redundant, finding a lump in your abdomen, being told that someone close to you has a serious illness, being unable to sell your house, waiting for a mortgage application to be approved etc. Uncertainty is particularly difficult to handle when:

  • The situation is uncontrollable
  • You are unable to predict what will happen

It is like being presented with an insoluble problem.

Firstly, do what you can

Try not to become paralyzed by uncertainty.  Take action. If there is something you can usefully do, then get on and do it. When you have done what you can – for example completing the right forms, or making that phone call, or talking to the vital person – then resist the temptation to continue searching for something else to do. Just accept that you have done all that you can do for now and begin thinking about yourself and your reactions to uncertainty instead. Make sure you have done all that you can. Stop and think: Have I done what I can usefully can? Be realistic.

Then, deal with your reactions to uncertainty

Some common reactions include worry, nervousness, restlessness, disturbed sleep, feeling agitated and preoccupied, irritability, difficulty concentrating and seeking reassurance. We all react differently, so your reactions will depend on your personality traits and the type of situation that you are uncertain about.

Recognize the uncertainty for what it is.

Uncertainty is a distressing and unpleasant feeling that can interfere with daily life. The difficulty is worth thinking about

Limit the problem

Find some certainties to hang on to. A routine of going to work, or eating meals in the usual way, can provide the building blocks of basic certainty. Or you may turn to your most reliable sources of support such as family or friends or music.

Normalize your life

As far as is possible, keep doing the things that you normally do, in the way that you normally do them. This is particularly vital if you are distressed or preoccupied about someone else. For example, if you run out of clean clothes because you were too worried and distracted to notice the washing build up, then you will only feel worse.

Do not withdraw from activities that you normally enjoy

Recreations, relaxations and pleasures often feel like an effort when you are preoccupied with an uncertainty. You may feel too worried or tired to bother: But withdrawing from these activities that you used to enjoy can leave you ruminating unproductively on your worries. Enjoyable activities will provide useful distraction, even though you may enjoy them less than you normally would.

Be reasonably selfish

Treat yourself to something nice. Look after yourself when you are going through a difficult time – just as you would look after someone else.

Turn your mind to something else

Distraction is a very useful strategy, provided it is not the only one that you use. If you always keep busy instead of facing your difficulties, then you may find it hard to face them later. But if you have first considered carefully the constructive steps that you can take, it can be extremely useful to give yourself something to do, particularly if it prevents you brooding and ruminating about the problem.

Talk to someone else about the problem

Most of us feel worse if we isolate ourselves with a worry. Attempt to find a balance between retreating silently into yourself and repeatedly seeking reassurance or talking about nothing other than your problems. Allowing your feelings to show helps you, and others around you, to understand them and to find ways of coping with them.

Take the pressure off

Living with constant uncertainty is exhausting. It can gradually deplete your resources. So this is not the time to take on extra responsibilities or commitments. On the contrary, ensure that you are eating properly, getting enough sleep, plenty of rest and taking enough exercise to maintain your strength and stamina.

Do not cross too many bridges  in your mind– keep the problem in perspective

It is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the worst possible outcome will occur. The more you think about the bad things that may happen, the more likely they seem, and the harder it is to work out how to cope with them. So, it is important to recognize that the worst has not yet happened. You discover a lump in your breast, or your groin, and immediately you imagine yourself dying from cancer. In your mind you have jumped too many bridges. Most lumps do not turn out to be cancerous; many cancers are curable. Take your problems one step at a time and remember to keep your mind focused on the present.

Ask yourself: “What good might come out of this in the end?”

Uncertainty is certainly unsettling, but old patterns of living may have become sterile or stale. Being swept along with the current of life can help people to adapt in creative ways, to overcome old anxieties and to develop new skills. It is not always a bad thing to have your foundations shaken up by uncertainties, even though the period of adjustment may be difficult and painful

Turning to others for help

Other people can provide an enormously useful sounding board when you are feeling worried or anxious. They are able to ask the questions that can enable you to work out what the worry is about, and they are able to keep you in touch with reality and put things in perspective, so that your fears do not get out of proportion or exaggerated. Friends and family can ask questions that challenge you to think about the problem from a different angle. They can take your worries seriously and help you to think for yourself.

However, asking repeatedly for reassurance can become a bad habit. Reassurance becomes unhelpful when it prevents self-reliance developing. If you find yourself repeatedly asking for reassurance from others, use a “questioning strategy” instead. Try asking yourself the same question you want answered by someone else, and then try to work out the answer yourself. Work out if there is a problem that you may be able to solve in another way. Sally repeatedly wanted to ask Alec “Do you think that I am really ill?” “Am I getting on your nerves?” You can imagine how he felt when she asked him for the fifth time in one evening.

If somebody is constantly asking you for reassurance, then take their worries and fears seriously and try to enable them to work out ways of answering their own questions. Repeatedly reassuring somebody is not helpful. Alec repeatedly reassured Sally, both by his actions and his words, in an attempt to help that actually proved counterproductive. He then learned not to do this when Sally explained what he could do instead.

Often worry and anxiety are accompanied by a sense of vulnerability or lack of confidence, as if the ability to cope was precariously balanced between a sense of all the things that may go wrong and all the difficulties that one would have in dealing with them. These 2 articles have described strategies for dealing with worry, but they are not the only ones available. Other strategies that help include:

  • Building self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Learning to relax
  • Problem solving
  • Looking after yourself physically
  • Treating yourself right
  • Learning to live with the right amount of stress
  • Overcoming sleep problems

In summary

Worry makes you feel bad, but most of it is unnecessary. Worrying can be helpful if it prompts you to take action. The first step therefore is to work out what action you should take. It is possible to eliminate 90% of your worries by sifting out:

  • The unimportant
  • The unlikely
  • The unresolved

More difficult and persistent worries can be dealt with by:

  • Learning how to let them go. Holding on to the worries maintains the feeling of vulnerability. Life will feel much better and calmer when you let the worries flow by.
  • Learning how to confront them head on. Exploring and examining the worries helps to keep them in proper perspective.

Living with uncertainty is particularly worrying, but there are many ways of reducing the strain. Do not forget that other people can be of enormous help when you are feeling worried. Do not be reluctant to turn to them, but do not get into the habit of repeatedly asking for reassurance.


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