Uncertainty is a part of life, no matter how much we try to resolve it. Whether you are preoccupied with how a particular event might play out, or are worrying about the future in a more general sense, human beings have a natural tendency to plan ahead. When they can’t, most people experience significant stress. A 2016 study showed just how unbearable unpredictability can be: Participants felt more stressed in the face of uncertainty compared to when they knew something bad was definitely going to happen.
Stress over uncertainty is widespread, experts note. “[When you don’t know] what other people are thinking or feeling… it’s ripe to breed anxiety in anyone, depending on well they’re able to tolerate uncertainty,” Julie Beck writes for The Atlantic. Some of the biggest uncertainties that cause stress and anxiety in people’s lives are fear of the unknown and fear of the future, says Dan Peters, Ph.D., a psychologist and author.
“Uncertainty is stressful because it can’t be planned for or managed. Humans like to know what is coming in order to be prepared — and not be surprised, disappointed, hurt, or caught off-guard. When we don’t know what is going to happen, we often worry about ourselves and our loved ones. When people don’t know what is going to happen, they often think about the negative possibilities and outcomes, rather than positive ones,” Peters tells Thrive Global.
While uncertainty is unavoidable, there are ways to manage the associated stress. Here’s how.
Embrace the unknown
Peters admits that accepting uncertainty is the simplest, yet hardest, step in overcoming it. Intolerance of uncertainty can lead to increased worrying and negative moods, and is thought to contribute to higher rates of burnout and increased health care costs in the medical field. Though it may be difficult to tolerate the unknown, learning to accept the uncertainty in our lives can reap many benefits. “Those who live with the most inner harmony and peace accept and embrace uncertainty as an inevitable part of life. Everything about life is uncertain, and the more we accept this, and realize that we can handle what life brings us, the less worried and anxious we will be,” Peters says.
Live in the present
Another step to coping with life’s uncertainties is to live in the moment, rather than focusing on events that are far in the future, or might not happen at all. “All of our worry and fear lives in the future, which is yet to be. Bringing oneself back to the present moment often brings a sense of calm, and reduces worry about the future,” Peters says. While it is important to think ahead to a certain extent, avoid planning so far in advance that you lose focus on current events, or feel overwhelmed by details. When your mind wanders, try meditation and breathing exercises to return to the present and calm chaotic thoughts.
Challenge negative thoughts
Many of us struggle with negative thinking patterns. According to Peters, these types of thoughts might start with “What if…” or “What will happen if…” or “What will people think if…” But they can be challenged by asking ourselves, “What if it doesn’t happen?” or “When has this worry come true?” or “So what if it happens?” In addition, intentionally assuming a positive attitude and course-correcting when your attitude shifts can help reduce negative thinking in your day to day, or when uncertainty feels especially overwhelming.
The desire to rid our lives of uncertainty is part of human nature. “People like to know what is going to happen and know how things are going to turn out,” Peters acknowledges. Yet, the power to persevere is something that also makes us uniquely human, and can help when uncertainty creates additional stress and anxiety. Embracing unpredictability, turning our focus to the present, and making a conscious effort to rethink negative thoughts can serve as coping mechanisms when we find ourselves asking “What if?”
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