Sitting with Uncertainty
The phrase “life is full of uncertainty” probably is not unfamiliar to you. We all know life throws the good, the bad, and the chaotic at us in any which way it pleases and whenever it pleases. The reality of our existence is that things can change every day. Tolerating uncertainty, however, is not exactly a walk in the park and often leaves us with feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
People often vary in their ability to tolerate feelings of uncertainty. Many go to different extents to avoid uncertainty and the anxiety that comes with it, with the most common being worry behavior. Worry behavior is our brain’s way of telling us that in order to get away from uncertainty we can try to eliminate it by mentally analyzing the situation we are uncertain about. We believe that by being able to identify the worst possible outcome or any situation we could imagine happening, we can better prepare ourselves for when it hits. When you come up with that answer, it temporarily alleviates the anxiety in a form of short-term avoidance. As soon as the uncertainty returns, however, we are left with that response to once again avoid discomfort through analyzing, reassurance seeking, procrastination, and other vices that once again, only momentarily relieve the discomfort.
We can view this fear of uncertainty from an evolutionary perspective. Our brains are constantly trying to predict what will happen next, allowing it to prepare the body and mind in the most effective way possible. If facing a predator or seeking nourishment, we have to be able to plan ahead or the outcome could be deadly. A survival mechanism could be avoiding the uncertainty altogether or putting the brain and body in a state of fight or flight that is ready to respond to the situation. In that sense, treating any unknowns as a possible threat to survival would have been adaptive, also generating the hyperarousal and hypervigilance response we’ve become familiar with as worry. As we’ve evolved, we found this familiar fear rooted in early childhood anxieties and a need for physical and emotional safety, which forms at the very beginning of life and continues into adulthood.
So how do we manage these feelings of uncertainty? The solution, unfortunately, is to find ways to sit with the uncertainty (simple, but not so easy). It’s leaving questions and scenarios unanswered, unresolved, and ultimately, uncertain. The more we allow ourselves to engage in this type of discomfort, the more our brains learn to tolerate uncertainty. There are a few ways to go about this. We can identify discomfort as a somatic response in our bodies through practices of mindfulness, noting it is the brain’s way of protecting us from a perceived threat. We can practice mental grounding by labeling what is in and out of our control in the situation and challenging ourselves to sit with the discomfort of what we cannot control. Most importantly, it is important to engage with compassion, affirming the difficulty and validation of the fear you are feeling no matter the threat of the situation. It is the practice of reframing uncertainty as normal and labeling it as okay. It is important to remind ourselves that discomfort of uncertainty is completely normal, despite how isolating it can feel.
It is impossible to avoid uncertainty. The reality is we are all vulnerable to hurt and pain. Our bodies are geared to fear the discomfort of uncertainty, but learning to get in touch with that response and sit with the discomfort is the best way to bring the control we are so searching for back to us- even if it doesn’t quite feel that way. Let’s get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.