By a show of hands, who here likes the unknown?
No? You don’t like uncertainty?
Neither do I. No one does.
Our deep fear of the unknown not only scares us, but it can scramble our brains.
Why? Why does uncertainty make us so uneasy?
Imagine having a job interview where the interviewer was hard to read. They had their poker face on the whole time and there’s no way to guess what the outcome will be. As the days go by, do you wish you could just know the outcome – even if it’s bad news – rather than enduring another minute of the agonizing wait?
How about when you receive a phone call from your nurse with test results that you’ve been anxiously awaiting? The nurse has a somber voice as she questions “How are you feeling?” Do you wish she would just get on with the news – good, bad or ugly?
In both scenarios – and many more – a feeling of uncertainty can bring acute discomfort. Numerous studies show that uncertainty can intensify how threatening a situation feels. For some people, a general inability to process ambiguous situations can even fuel chronic anxiety disorders.
And it’s not just the uncertainty of a threat that causes discomfort: we’re also reluctant to place ourselves in potentially profitable situations if they involve an element of unpredictability.
When we look back upon how life once was, this strong negative response to uncertainty makes sense. The brain is constantly trying to predict what will happen next, allowing it to prepare the body and mind in the most effective way possible. In uncertain situations, that planning is a lot harder – and if you’re potentially facing a predator or a human enemy, the wrong response could be deadly. As a result, it could pay to err on the side of caution – either by avoiding the uncertainty altogether or by putting the brain and body in an alert state that is ready to respond to a changing situation.
Treating unknowns as potential threats served as a great survival mechanism, as long as the associated anxiety did not compromise essential activities such as seeking food, shelter, or selecting mates.
Fast forward to today, the potential threats of the modern world are not the same. Our lives have evolved. Our needs and desires have grown exponentially. And the “unknown” represents one of our fundamental fears – significantly impacting our behavior and our decision making.
Despite this common evolutionary foundation to our fear of the unknown, we all perceive uncertainty differently. And that’s because we have different beliefs that shape our responses, which in turn shape our health and wellbeing.
Would you like to learn more about how you tolerate uncertainty? Psychologists use the “intolerance of uncertainty” scale to measure someone’s attitude toward uncertainty. Let’s work through a little exercise together so you get an idea of how you might score. I’m going to give you 5 statements and you’re going to rate each statement on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 means “not characteristic of me at all”; 5 means “entirely characteristic of me”. Get a pen and a piece of paper.
Okay, are you ready? Don’t overthink it. Your initial gut response is usually the most accurate. There are no right or wrong answers here, only what’s true for you. Alright, let’s go –
- Unforeseen events upset me greatly.
- It frustrates me not having all the information I need.
- I should be able to organize everything in advance.
- When it’s time to act, uncertainty paralyses me.
- The smallest doubt can stop me from acting.
Now add up your ratings. You score will be anywhere from 5 to 25. How did you do?
Let’s talk about what your score means, because otherwise that’s just a meaningless number. People who score high on the “intolerance of uncertainty” scale tend to show heightened stress responses to uncertain situations. Intriguingly, they also tend to find it hard to “unlearn” fears even after safety has been established. In other words, the higher your score, the longer your fear and anxiety linger even after the originating situation that caused your fear and anxiety has passed.
Is a strong fear of uncertainty such a big deal? Yes! Because it prevents us from living the life we want to live. It prevents us from trying something new, even if it holds the promise of improving our lives.
If you can feel uncomfortable with the unknown, as we all do, and still make decisions and take action in the direction of your desires, then I celebrate you! I hope you’re celebrating yourself too!
But if your fear of uncertainty is so crippling that it keeps you stuck day after day, month after month, year after year – it’s time to do something about it.
Scientists point out that certain forms of therapy can help. The key is to use a form of therapy that gets to the root cause of your high intolerance to uncertainty. From there, therapy can help you stop imagining disastrous, catastrophic thoughts that might be triggered by an unpredictable event. Therapy can also help you question the validity of these thoughts and build your ability to cope with uncertainty.
Some people may assume that they simply cannot function without resolving every unknown, leading them to feel paralyzed whenever things don’t go exactly per plan. Or worse – leading them to feel paralyzed to take any action whatsoever. But with gentle encouragement to step outside their comfort zone, and reframing old beliefs, they may find the feelings are not nearly as bad as they fear, and that a small amount of chaos in their lives can even offer an opportunity for learning and growth.
If you’re feeling excited, or even a little hopeful, that life with more ease could be possible for you too, and if you want to explore how I can help you get there, then schedule a complimentary Limitless Life Strategy Call with me. You don’t even have to say “yes” to working with me just yet. You just have to say “maybe”.
No matter your score on the “intolerance of uncertainty” scale, it’s worth remembering that attempts to predict the future are often completely fruitless. When we worry, we think about the possible outcomes of an uncertain situation to somehow prepare. In reality, worrying does not reduce the uncertainty we face and instead sets us up to feel more anxious. As Walt Disney once said – “Worrying is a waste of your imagination.”
So, from here on, whether you’re nervous about signing up for something that could improve your life (like a course, a program, or a call with me 😉) or whether you’re hesitant to tell someone how you really feel – instead of focusing on what could go wrong, I invite you to focus on what could go right. Instead of “What if it doesn’t work?”, ask yourself “What if it does work?”
That, my friend, is my message for you today. Take a moment to think about ways you could invite more ease into your life. I’m here to help if you want to bounce ideas off me.
I wish you ease and comfort in the unknown. Here’s to things always working out…