How to Handle Uncertainty with Confidence
This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing fear of uncertainty.
Planning and predictability can help us feel in control. But in life, there are many instances where there’s no guarantee that things will go the way we thought they would, even when we do our best to prepare. Our relationships, finances, health, the economy—they all come with built-in uncertainty.
“The reality is that we are always functioning in the midst of uncertainty,” says Tynessa Franks, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Atlanta. “None of us knows what will happen in our life, moment to moment.”
The Effects of Uncertainty on Your Mental Health
Uncertainty may understandably leave you feeling anxious sometimes, says Briana Severine, a licensed professional counselor in Denver. Those feelings can lead to overthinking, avoidance, and other behaviors that may interfere with your well‑being.
For instance, you may feel compelled to find out more about the thing you’re worrying about, says licensed clinical psychologist Karen Lynn Cassiday, Ph.D., managing director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago and former president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Even if excessive fact-finding makes you miserable, you may find it hard to stop. “You try to reassure yourself by collecting more information,” she says.
Or you may try to avoid uncertainty, for better or worse. If you’re uncertain that a new job opening would be a good fit, for example, you may never apply, opting instead to stick with a job you don’t like.
“We are inherently attracted to the familiar because at least we know what to expect,” says Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, a licensed psychotherapist who practices in North Providence, Rhode Island. “Sometimes, we'll even remain in disliked or unideal situations to avoid the feelings of anxiety that can accompany uncertainty.”
When you accept that life will be full of uncertainty, you can focus on what you can control—which is your ability to move through it. “Realizing that you possess the skills to function and even thrive in a state of uncertainty can help boost your confidence,” Franks says.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Uncertainty
So how do you handle uncertainty when it may be the only thing that’s guaranteed? Here are four expert-recommended strategies to help.
1. Try Something New
Coping with uncertainty in controlled doses may help build your confidence for handling bigger unknowns. Cassiday has her clients drive without a phone and ask for directions if they get lost. “Deliberately take risks and do novel things because they’re uncertain,” she says. “Prove to yourself that you can handle the uncertainty of not knowing and taking a risk.”
2. Reflect on Past Successes
No doubt you’ve survived uncertain events in the past. Remind yourself of that! Think about how you dealt with that event and what tactics you can apply to any uncertainty you may be facing now. “Recognize that your problem is with uncertainty and not a situation,” Cassiday says. “You’ve been able to do it before, so you can do it again.”
This type of reflection can serve as a constant reminder that you can get through hard things, Severine adds.
3. Remember to Weigh the Positives
When we talk about uncertainty, it’s almost always with a focus on potential negative outcomes, Franks says: “Research shows that we naturally give more attention to threat-related information versus non-threat-related information when we’re uncertain.”
But as she points out, all of the potentially positive events of the future are also unknown. Take some time to reflect on the good, exciting things that might await you in the future. This may help widen your focus and shift your mood, Franks says.
4. Limit News Consumption
Broadcast and online news is often full of information that hits the uncertainty trigger for most people, Severine says.
If it’s important to you to be aware of current events, find a limit for your consumption and rely only on reputable news sources. “Many news stories are reporting on theories of what could happen, not what is currently happening,” Severine says. “If you're consuming stories of possibilities versus what is happening in the moment, that will increase distress.”
When to Seek Help
If worries tied to uncertainty tend to interfere with your relationships, work, or other activities, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional, says Weaver-Breitenbecher. That includes anytime you feel stuck in life when it comes to making major changes or decisions, or if you feel like uncertainty is affecting your sleep or social life.
A mental health professional can help teach you tools and strategies for coping with fear of the unknown so that uncertainty has less of an impact on you.
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