You’ve probably heard some version of the phrase: The only thing certain in life is uncertainty. The fact that life is filled with surprises, unexpected events and change – a whole lot of it – isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It’s simply reality. It’s just how life works. And it helps us grow.
“Life challenges and periods of uncertainty are normal aspects of the human experience…[T]hey promote the evolution of our consciousness,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, a psychotherapist and owner of the counseling practice Urban Balance.
But for many of us uncertainty is uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. It’s especially tough tolerating uncertainty when a situation is significant to us, and we become attached to a specific outcome, according to Tom Corboy, MFT, the founder and executive director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles.
For instance, you might be uncomfortable with uncertainty when your romantic relationship is experiencing a rough patch or when there’s a chance you’ll lose your job.
Because uncertainty is distressing, many of us try to control or eliminate it altogether. Corboy regularly sees this with his clients who struggle with anxiety.
For instance, when a person with OCD washes their hands compulsively, they’re really trying to control the uncertainty of getting contaminated, he said. When a person with panic disorder avoids flying, they’re really trying to control “their discomfort with the uncertainty of whether they will experience a panic attack on the plane.”
In reality, though, compulsive behaviors provide only temporary relief from the distress, and intensify the obsession. Avoidance also feeds the original fear, which just keeps growing and growing.
Whether you have an anxiety disorder or not, you can probably identify several ways in which you try to avoid, control or remove uncertainty.
But you can learn to tolerate uncertainty. Here are tips to help.
Ditch the Shoulds
“If we go through life attached to the idea that things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be a certain way, we are setting ourselves up for endless disappointment,” said Corboy, co-author of the upcoming book The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD. Can you loosen your grip on how things should be? Can you be open to other possibilities or outcomes?
Work Through Anxious Thoughts
Cognitive restructuring is a powerful way to get more comfortable with uncertainty. “The basic idea is to no longer blindly accept the automatic negative thoughts that come to us so easily, and to instead develop the skill of challenging those thoughts,” Corboy said.
For instance, if the thought “uncertainty is unacceptable” arises, replace it with this more realistic thought: “Uncertainty is less than ideal, but it is acceptable and tolerable.”
If the thought “I can’t handle uncertainty about …” arises, replace it with: “I don’t particularly care for uncertainty, but I can bear it.”
Build An Openness to Uncertainty
“For some people the idea of accepting the discomfort of uncertainty is anathema, and they may resist the very idea of attempting such a thing,” Corboy said. He suggested developing a willingness or openness to experience uncertainty without trying to eliminate or control it.
For instance, mindfulness meditation can help you stay present with uncomfortable feelings, he said. “Using mindfulness, you can learn to sit with your feelings of uncertainty, and thus discover that you are indeed able to do so.”
Marter suggested reading the work of Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now to help you stay in the present moment. “When we are firmly grounded in the present moment, our minds cannot worry about uncertainty.”
She actually suggested the book to a client right before he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. “[H]e said staying in the present moment is what got him through the first grueling weeks of diagnosis and treatment. He is doing fabulously a year later and still listening to Eckhart Tolle.”
Channel the Serenity Prayer
Take a cue from the Serenity Prayer, according to Marter. Create a list of what you can control and pursue those activities. Also, create a list of what you can’t control “and visualize handing it over to your higher power.”
Take Action, Anyway
“When it comes to uncertainty, the most important thing to do is to challenge any behavior that you do in an effort to eliminate or control your discomfort,” Corboy said.
That means getting on a plane if you’re worried about the uncertainty of flying, or not washing your hands if you’re worried you’ve been exposed to a germ.
“Let yourself feel the uncertainty, and get on with your day. You may at first feel extremely uncomfortable, but in time you will habituate to that feeling.”
Therapy can be a huge help for dealing with uncertainty and anxiety. Corboy suggested trying acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which is built on the idea that trying to fix our discomfort – a natural part of life – only exacerbates it.
“From an ACT perspective, when we are faced with distress about uncertainty, the goal is to accept the distress, and to choose to act according to our personal values despite it.”
Specifically, ACT focuses on three areas: Accepting your reactions and being present; choosing a valued direction; and taking action.
Let’s say you value spending time with your family who live in another state. But you’re also afraid to fly because of the uncertainty of a) having a panic attack and b) not being able to handle it.
The goal with ACT is to accept that you’re afraid to fly, and that it might cause some discomfort, and to do it anyway.
Uncertainty is inevitable. And no matter how hard we try, controlling it simply doesn’t work (and actually backfires). Instead, practice acceptance, control what you can – and relinquish the rest – and consider therapy if you need extra support.