How do we feel when we can't see what's coming in life? How does it feel when we don't know the answer? For most of us, the answer is that it feels uncomfortable. Sometimes very uncomfortable.
We often have developed elaborate ways to cope with the discomfort of uncertainty and the fear that it brings along. Several common examples of coping are: hyper-planning, avoiding/ignoring, or clinging and trying to control the uncertain situation. While these strategies can get us through, there are ways to approach uncertainty that are easier on us emotionally and far more effective in the long run.
No matter the stressful uncertainty you face, these approaches can help. Whether you are healing from a trauma and feel unsure of how things will look when you emerge from the other side, or whether you are facing unpredictable fertility treatment and are fearful of failure, or if you're pregnant and preoccupied by whether your baby is healthy. This is helpful for situational stressors as well, such unpredictable life circumstances that trigger anxiety, such as the unpredictability of a job change or a general dissatisfaction with aspects of your life when you don't know what steps to take to improve it.
1. Accept the uncertainty
As simple as it sounds, accepting the uncertainty -- and giving ourselves permission to be fearful and unsure -- is very powerful. We don't need to know the outcome or answer immediately. We don't have to have a perfect plan. This permission calms down the emotional entanglements that uncertainty causes within us. While simple in concept, acceptance of uncertainty may seem daunting in practice. However, anyone can learn to implement acceptance with an investment of time and effort.
2. Give up the "fight" with fear and uncertainty
When we get uncomfortable with fear and uncertainty, we tend to struggle with it. We struggle by ruminating (repetitive thinking), by vacillating between belief and disbelief, by intensely thinking through hypothetical scenarios or solutions to the unknown. This internal battle creates additional pain and discomfort. When we "fight" against uncertainty, it turns pain and discomfort into suffering (Linehan, 1993). While pain is inevitable, suffering is not. You can markedly decrease the suffering in your life by implementing the concept of acceptance around pain and uncertainty.
3. Focus on the present
When experiencing uncertainty, our brains often go off in many directions, thinking through many scenarios to "solve" whatever problem is at hand. While some planning in life is necessary, the law of diminishing returns is most certainly in place: only so much planning is effective. If all we do is think through a plan for disastrous scenario after disastrous scenario as we worry through our uncertain situation, we are creating unneeded emotional distress and suffering. Focusing on the present -- and on what we can actually change and impact now -- is the quickest and most certain way to calm us down in the moment despite the uncertainty we face.
4. Let go of fear, seize opportunities
Investing time in expecting the worst and planning for catastrophic scenario after scenario when faced with uncertainty is exhausting. It also ties up our thought process and makes it harder to respond to needs in the present. If we are too focused on the negative and spending too much time in the future, we will miss opportunities that inevitably present themselves during periods of uncertainty. Sometimes when we seize these unexpected opportunities, we often find not only a better outcome than we expected, but we also find relief.
Accepting pain and uncertainty takes conscious decision and effort, but the pay off for this work is more than worth the effort!