Many us, whether or not we struggle with an anxiety disorder, view uncertainty as intimidating. After all, uncertainty is ambiguous. It means unpredictable situations that we’re convinced have the potential for discomfort, undesirable outcomes, bad news, and big mistakes.
So we avoid uncertainty. We don’t take a new route to work, because we might get lost. And what if there’s no one to give us directions? We don’t try a new restaurant, because what if we don’t find parking? What if the restaurant is packed? What if we hate what we eat and end up wasting all that money? We don’t let people in, because what if they don’t like what they see? What if they betray us? We rarely make decisions without consulting others because what if we make the wrong choice? We rarely delegate tasks to someone else because what if they mess things up?
We don’t do or try many different things, because we worry that something unpleasant will happen. And if we can’t think or plan three steps ahead, we feel uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. We view uncertainty as a potential threat and something that must be avoided at all costs.
Uncertainty requires relinquishing control and trusting that we can cope if something does go wrong. And so many of us second-guess our own abilities and skills to cope effectively.
But uncertainty is part of life. Life is uncertainty.
In their excellent book The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Workbook: A Comprehensive CBT Guide for Coping with Uncertainty, Worry and Fear Melisa Robichaud, PhD, and Michel J. Dugas, PhD, share valuable tips for embracing uncertainty and even inviting it in. They stress the importance of conducting behavioral experiments, a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Behavioral experiments allow you to directly test beliefs by predicting what you think will happen in a feared situation, deliberately entering into that situation, and then finding out what really happens,” write Robichaud and Dugas.
Below are suggestions and insights from The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Workbook on conducting these experiments in your own life:
- Start small. For instance, if you check your smartphone often because you worry that you’ll miss something, conduct an experiment where you don’t check your phone for one hour. Other examples include: going to a new restaurant without reading a review; making a small decision without asking anyone else; letting a friend make plans without consulting you.
- Record the results of your experiment. On a sheet of paper, list the experiment; what you think will happen; what actually happened; and what you did if things didn’t go well. “Make sure the experiment involves deliberately entering into an unpredictable, novel or ambiguous situation without engaging in a behavior that might reduce or eliminate the uncertainty of the situation.”
- Expect to be anxious. You’re facing something you’ve been avoiding, so it’s normal and even good to feel anxious during your experiments.
- Rinse and repeat. Conduct the same experiments multiple times, so your beliefs start to shift.
- Diversify and up the ante. Conduct experiments in other areas of your life. For instance, if your earlier experiment was about making decisions, conduct new experiments that involve decisions at work or school, in social situations and at home (e.g., making a decision about home repairs). After trying numerous small experiments, move on to more challenging experiments. For instance, if you turned your phone off for one hour, leave your phone at home for several hours while you’re running errands. Then leave your phone at home for an entire day, or keep your phone turned off.
- Tailor your experiments to specific worries and fears. For instance, if you’d describe yourself as a control freak, create an experiment around giving up control: host a potluck where you don’t know what dishes people are bringing; let your spouse complete a task you normally do yourself.
Spending our time, energy and effort trying to avoid, reduce or eliminate uncertainty is stressful as it is. It also means that we don’t participate fully in our lives or taste the beauty, wonder and magic that can be found in getting lost and embarking on new experiences. It means that we don’t stretch ourselves and thereby learn valuable lessons. It means that we don’t give ourselves the chance to try.
Like anything else embracing uncertainty is a process that takes practice. Keep conducting experiments on a regular basis. Give yourself plenty of opportunities to try. And if you’re having a tough time with it, seek support from a mental health professional.
Guy with compass photo available from Shutterstock