Life is filled with uncertainty and worries about the future. While many things remain outside your control, your mindset is key to coping with difficult circumstances and confidently facing the unknown.
The role of uncertainty in life
Uncertainty is all around us, never more so than today. Whether it concerns a global pandemic, the economy, or your finances, health, and relationships, much of what lies ahead in life remains uncertain. Yet as human beings, we crave security. We want to feel safe and have a sense of control over our lives and well-being. Fear and uncertainty can leave you feeling stressed, anxious, and powerless over the direction of your life. It can drain you emotionally and trap you in a downward spiral of endless “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios about what tomorrow may bring.
We're all different in how much uncertainty we can tolerate in life. Some people seem to enjoy taking risks and living unpredictable lives, while others find the randomness of life deeply distressing. But all of us have a limit. If you feel overwhelmed by uncertainty and worry, it's important to know that you're not alone; many of us are in the same boat. It's also important to realize that no matter how helpless and hopeless you feel, there are steps you can take to better deal with uncontrollable circumstances, alleviate your anxiety, and face the unknown with more confidence.
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Learning to cope with uncertainty
While we may not wish to acknowledge it, uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. Very little about our lives is constant or totally certain, and while we have control over many things, we can't control everything that happens to us. As the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated, life can change very quickly and very unpredictably. One day things may be just fine, the next you’ve suddenly become sick, lost your job, or found yourself struggling to put food on the table or provide for your family.
To cope with all this uncertainty, many of us use worrying as a tool for trying to predict the future and avoid nasty surprises. Worrying can make it seem like you have some control over uncertain circumstances. You may believe that it will help you find a solution to your problems or prepare you for the worst. Maybe if you just agonize over a problem long enough, just think through every possibility, or read every opinion online, you'll find a solution and be able to control the outcome. Unfortunately, none of this works. Chronic worrying can't give you more control over uncontrollable events; it just robs you of enjoyment in the present, saps your energy, and keeps you up at night. But there are healthier ways to cope with uncertainty—and that begins with adjusting your mindset.
[Read: How to Stop Worrying]
The following tips can help you to:
- Focus on controlling those things that are under your control.
- Challenge your need for certainty.
- Learn to better tolerate, even embrace, the inevitable uncertainty of life.
- Reduce your anxiety and stress levels.
Tip 1: Take action over the things you can control
Much about life is uncertain at the moment—and many things remain outside of your control. But while you can't control the spread of a virus, the recovery of the economy, or whether you'll have a pay check next week, you're not totally powerless. Whatever your fears or personal circumstances, instead of worrying about the uncontrollable, try to refocus your mind on taking action over the aspects that are within your control.
For example, if you've lost your job or income during this difficult time, you still have control over how much energy you put into searching online for work, sending out resumes, or networking with your contacts. Similarly, if you’re worried about your health or a recent diagnosis, for example, you can still take action by lowering your stress levels, reaching out to loved ones for support, and managing your symptoms.
By focusing on the aspects of a problem that you can control in this way, you'll switch from ineffective worrying and ruminating into active problem-solving. Of course, all circumstances are different and you may find that in some situations all you can control is your attitude and emotional response.
[Read: Coping with a Life-Threatening Illness or Serious Health Event]
Actively deal with your emotions
When circumstances are out of your control, it's easy to become overwhelmed by fear and negative emotions. You may think that bottling up how you feel, trying to put on a brave face, or forcing yourself to be positive will provide the best outcome. But denying or suppressing your emotions will only increase stress and anxiety and make you more vulnerable to depression or burnout.
When you can do nothing else about a situation, you can still actively face up to your emotions—even the most negative and fearful ones. Allowing yourself to experience uncertainty in this way can help you reduce stress, better come to terms with your circumstances, and find a sense of peace as you deal with challenges.
Tip 2: Challenge your need for certainty
While uncertainty and change are inescapable parts of life, we often adopt behaviors to try to cope with the discomfort they can bring. In addition to worrying through every possible scenario, you may:
Excessively seek reassurance from others. You repeatedly ask friends or loved ones if you're making the right decision, endlessly research information online, or seek out expert advice in an effort to remove uncertainty from your life.
Micromanage people. You refuse to delegate tasks to others, either at work or home. You may even try to force people around you to change, to make their behavior more predictable for you.
Procrastinate. By not making decisions, you hope to avoid the uncertainty that inevitably follows. You'll find ways to delay or postpone acting—or even avoid certain situations all together—in an attempt to prevent bad things from happening.
Repeatedly check things. You call or text your family, friends, or kids again and again to make sure they're safe. You check and re-check emails, texts, or forms before sending, double-check lists to ensure you haven't missed anything that could have repercussions on the predictability of the future.
How to challenge these behaviors
You can challenge the behaviors you've adopted to alleviate the discomfort of uncertainty by asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the advantages of certainty? What are the disadvantages? Life can change in a moment and it is filled with unexpected events and surprises—but that's not always a bad thing. For every unpleasant surprise, such as a traffic accident or serious medical diagnosis, there are good things that happen out of the blue as well—a dream job offer, a surprise pay rise, or an unexpected phone call from an old friend. Opportunity often arises from the unexpected and having to face uncertainty in life can also help you learn to adapt, overcome challenges, and increase your resiliency. It can help you to grow as a person.
- How much can you be absolutely certain about in life? Does anyone have a job for life, a guarantee of good health, or absolute certainty over what tomorrow will bring? Behaviors such as worrying, micromanaging, and procrastinating offer the illusion of having some control over a situation, but what do they change in reality? The truth is no matter how much you try to plan and prepare for every possible outcome, life will find a way of surprising you. All striving for certainty really does is fuel worry and anxiety.
- Do you assume bad things will happen just because an outcome is uncertain? What is the likelihood they will? When you're faced with uncertainty, it's easy to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening—and underestimate your ability to cope if it does. But given that the likelihood of something bad happening is low, even in these precarious times, is it possible to live with that small chance and focus instead on the more likely outcomes? Ask your friends and family how they cope with uncertainty in specific circumstances. Could you do the same?
By challenging your need for certainty, you can begin to let go of negative behaviors, reduce stress and worry, and free up time and energy for more practical purposes.
Tip 3: Learn to accept uncertainty
No matter how much you strive to eliminate doubt and volatility from your life, the truth is you already accept a lot of uncertainty every day. Each time you cross a street, get behind the wheel of a car, or eat takeout or restaurant food you're accepting a level of uncertainty. You're trusting that the traffic will stop, you won't have an accident, and everything you're eating is safe.
The chances of something bad happening in these circumstances is small, so you accept the risk and move on without requiring certainty. If you're religious, you also likely accept some doubt and uncertainty as part of your faith.
When irrational fears and worries take hold, it can be hard to think logically and accurately weigh up the probability of something bad happening. To help you become more tolerant and accepting of uncertainty, the following steps can help:
Identify your uncertainty triggers. A lot of uncertainty tends to be self-generated, through excessive worrying or a pessimistic outlook, for example. However, some uncertainty can be generated by external sources, especially at times like this. Reading media stories that focus on worst-case scenarios, spending time on social media amid rumors and half-truths, or simply communicating with anxious friends can all fuel your own fears and uncertainties. That's the reason why so many people start panic-buying when bad news breaks—they see others doing it and it feeds their own fears. By recognizing your triggers, you can take action to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.
Recognize when you feel the need for certainty. Notice when you start to feel anxious and fearful about a situation, begin to worry about what-ifs, or feel like a situation is far worse than it actually is. Look for the physical cues that you're feeling anxious. You might notice the tension in your neck or shoulders, shortness of breath, the onset of a headache, or an empty feeling in your stomach. Take a moment to pause and recognize that you're craving reassurance or a guarantee.
[Read: Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks]
Allow yourself to feel the uncertainty. Instead of engaging in futile efforts to gain control over the uncontrollable, let yourself experience the discomfort of uncertainty. Like all emotions, if you allow yourself to feel fear and uncertainty, they will eventually pass. Focus on the present moment and your breathing and allow yourself to simply feel and observe the uncertainty you're experiencing. Take some slow, deep breaths or try a meditation to keep you anchored in the present.
Listen to HelpGuide's Coping with Uncertainty meditation.
Let go. Respond to the what-ifs running through your head by acknowledging that you're not a fortune teller; you don't know what will happen. All you can do is let go and accept the uncertainty as part of life.
Shift your attention. Focus on solvable worries, taking action on those aspects of a problem that you can control, or simply go back to what you were doing. When your mind wanders back to worrying or the feelings of uncertainty return, refocus your mind on the present moment and your own breathing.
Accepting uncertainty doesn't mean not having a plan
Accepting uncertainty doesn't mean you shouldn't have a plan for some of life's unforeseen circumstances. It's always good to have some savings put by in case of unexpected expenses, keep a preparedness kit handy if you live in an area at risk for earthquakes or hurricanes, or have a plan if you or a loved one falls ill. But you can't prepare for every possible scenario. Life is simply too random and unpredictable.
Tip 4: Focus on the present
Uncertainty is often centered on worries about the future and all the bad things you can anticipate happening. It can leave you feeling hopeless and depressed about the days ahead, exaggerate the scope of the problems you face, and even paralyze you from taking action to overcome a problem.
One of the surest ways to avoid worrying about the future is to focus on the present. Instead of trying to predict what might happen, switch your attention to what's happening right now. By being fully connected to the present, you can interrupt the negative assumptions and catastrophic predictions running through your mind.
You can learn to purposely focus your attention on the present through mindfulness. With regular practice, mindfulness can help change your preoccupation with future worries to a stronger appreciation of the present moment—as well as help calm your mind, ease stress, and boost your overall mood.
You can start a mindfulness practice by following an audio meditation or incorporating it into an exercise program, such as walking. Using mindfulness to stay focused on the present can take perseverance. Initially, you may find that your focus keeps wandering back to your future fears and worries—but keep at it. Each time you focus your attention back on the present, you're strengthening a new mental habit that can help you break free of uncertainty.
Tip 5: Manage stress and anxiety
Taking steps to reduce your overall stress and anxiety levels can help you interrupt the downward spiral of negative thoughts, find inner calm, and better cope with the uncertainty in your life.
Get moving. Exercise is a natural and effective stress-reliever and anti-anxiety treatment. Try adding a mindfulness element and focusing on how your body feels as you move. Pay attention to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground as you walk, run, or dance, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the sun or wind on your skin.
Make time for relaxation. Choose a relaxation technique such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises and try to set aside time each day for regular practice.
Get plenty of sleep. Excessive worry and uncertainty can disturb your sleep—just as a lack of quality sleep can fuel anxiety and stress. Improving your daytime habits and taking time to relax and unwind before bed can help you to sleep better at night.
Eat a healthy diet. Eating healthy meals can help maintain your energy levels and prevent mood swings. Avoid sugary and processed foods and try to add more omega-3 fats—from salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—to give your overall mood a boost.
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Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Melinda Smith, M.A.
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and Anticipation in Anxiety. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3524
Carleton, R. N., Mulvogue, M. K., Thibodeau, M. A., McCabe, R. E., Antony, M. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2012). Increasingly certain about uncertainty: Intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(3), 468–479. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2012.01.011
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2011). Uncertainty Is Associated with Biased Expectancies and Heightened Responses to Aversion. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11(2), 413–424. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022583
Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5
Get more help
Accepting Uncertainty (PDF) – Part of a larger course on managing worry and anxiety. (Centre for Clinical Interventions)
5 Steps to Living with Uncertainty During Coronavirus – Tips for coping with fear and uncertainty at this difficult time. (Psychology Today)
Last updated: November 21, 2022
How do you manage emotions in uncertainties? ›
- Practice CBT. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps people understand how their thoughts affect their emotions, and in turn, their behavior. ...
- Practice mindfulness. ...
- Get regular exercise. ...
- Breathe. ...
- Focus on what you can control.
- Try something new, but small and safe. ...
- When you mess up, don't see it as painful failure. ...
- See the wonder and opportunity in change. ...
- Ask “what's the worst-case scenario”? ...
- Develop a change toolset. ...
- Become aware of your clinging. ...
- See the downsides of clinging.
- Let Go. The first step to dealing with uncertainty is to accept that we can't control everything. ...
- Envision the Best. We often try to spare ourselves disappointment by thinking through how things could go wrong. ...
- Reflect. ...
- Avoid Avoidance (And Keep Moving!) ...
- See the Possibility.
We distinguish three basic forms of uncertainty—modal, empirical and normative—corresponding to the nature of the judgement that we can make about the prospects we face, or to the nature of the question we can ask about them.What are the 4 approaches to reduce uncertainty? ›
The four strategies are 'decreased uncertainty'; 'trust scientists'; 'precautionary actions' and 'possible actions', see (Figure 1).Why does uncertainty bother me so much? ›
Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.What are 3 strategies to cope with difficult emotions? ›
- Drop the thoughts you are telling yourself about the situation and turn your awareness toward your body. ...
- Write out your feelings in a journal or notebook. ...
- Share your experience with a trusted friend.
Some soft skills you might have to study and learn, and others might come to you naturally. Listening, communication and delegation are all examples of soft skills.How do you stay resilient in uncertainty? ›
- Accept what is out of your control. Focusing on things you cannot control will leave you feeling frustrated and exhausted. ...
- Embrace change. There will always be change. ...
- Stay focused on the big picture. ...
- Maintain a positive attitude.
Fear is present-oriented and relatively certain while anxiety is future-oriented and relatively uncertain. Uncertainty is a central feature in the conceptual model of fear, which leads to anxiety and worry.
What are the three strategies for reducing uncertainty? ›
- Passive strategies: observing the person.
- Active strategies: asking others about the person or looking up information.
- Interactive strategies: asking questions, self-disclosure.
- Embrace Uncertainty. ...
- Set short term plans and goals. ...
- Information is gold. ...
- Risk-taking is a useful and an under rated skill. ...
- Find Stability Amongst the Turbulence. ...
- Valuable Learning in Every Crisis. ...
- Embrace the unknown with energy. ...
- Involve your entire team.
To deal with uncertainty, focus your energy on things you can control: your own emotions, thoughts and actions. You'll feel empowered and confident instead of stressed.What is the main source of uncertainty? ›
The sources of uncertainty are missing information, unreliable information, conflicting information, noisy information, and confusing information.What are the four key concepts when leading people through uncertainty? ›
There are four key concepts when leading people during times of uncertainty: Inform, Connect, Guide, and Unite. As people struggle to make sense of a new situation, they are particularly hungry for information and analysis during the opening stages.What are the three factors causing uncertainty? ›
Duncan (1972) describes three factors that contribute to this sense of uncertainty: (a) a lack of information about environmental factors that would influence a given decision-making situation; (b) a lack of knowledge about the effects of an incorrect decision; and (c) the inability of the decision-maker to assess the ...Which is the most effective strategy for reducing uncertainty? ›
Active strategy: Involves seeking information from a third party about a new acquaintance, such as asking your good friend Jill about your new friend Joe. Interactive strategy: Directly communicating face-to-face with the new acquaintance to learn more about them. This is the fastest strategy to reduce uncertainty.What are the two types of uncertainty? ›
In general, two basic types of data uncertainty occur: aleatoric or epistemic data uncertainty. Aleatoric uncertainty  is also known as irreducible uncertainty  or variability .What are the five criteria for making decisions under uncertainty? ›
- Laplace criterion.
- Minimax regret.
- Determine what you can control. ...
- Identify your fears. ...
- Concentrate on your influence. ...
- Differentiate between ruminating and problem-solving. ...
- Create a stress management plan. ...
- Develop healthy affirmations.
How does uncertainty affect mental health? ›
Some people can “roll with the punches,” adapting to changes quickly, while others struggle with the unknown and are likely to experience changes in mood, sleep/appetite patterns, and coping. Intolerance to uncertainty is also linked with stress, anxiety, depression, panic attacks or disorder, and compulsions.Is uncertainty an insecurity? ›
Insecurity is defined as: "uncertainty or anxiety about oneself," or "the state of being open to danger or threat." Uncertainty is defined as: "something that is doubtful or unknown." Even by definition, insecurity can include uncertainty, yet they are distinct in other ways.What are the 4 basic emotional needs? ›
There are four basic needs: The need for Attachment; the need for Control/Orientation; the need for Pleasure/Avoidance of Pain; and the need for Self-Enhancement.What are the 4 pillars of emotional intelligence? ›
The four domains of Emotional Intelligence — self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management — each can help a leader face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences.What is the hardest emotion to deal with? ›
Many people say that one of the most difficult emotions to handle is anger. Anger can weaken your ability to solve problems effectively, make good decisions, handle changes, and get along with others. Concerns about anger control are very common.What are 7 techniques you can use to cope with stress? ›
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. ...
- Take care of yourself. ...
- Take care of your body. ...
- Make time to unwind. ...
- Talk to others. ...
- Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol.
This ability is directly related to our level of certainty regarding future events – how likely they are, when they will occur, and what they will be like. Uncertainty diminishes how efficiently and effectively we can prepare for the future, and thus contributes to anxiety.Why am I afraid of uncertainty? ›
Fear of uncertainty is related to fear of losing control. When we feel like we are not able to control the outcome of future events, we anticipate disaster. This can be very anxiety-provoking, especially for those who find any uncertainty intolerable.What are the 7 C's of resilience? ›
Dr Ginsburg, child paediatrician and human development expert, proposes that there are 7 integral and interrelated components that make up being resilient – competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.What are the 5 C's of resilience? ›
My review produced “5 Cs of resilience”: confidence/control, connections, commitment, calmness, and care for self.
What are the 3 R's of resilience? ›
At Turnaround for Children, we call these the 3R's—Relationships, Routines, Resilience—the 3 non-negotiables for healthy development, learning and managing stress.How does the brain react to uncertainty? ›
Yale neuroscientists found that uncertainty can be healthy for your brain because you learn more in situations that are unsure. In a predictable setting, your brain doesn't need to do as much. It becomes a couch potato of sorts. But when situations change, it works harder.How do you find peace in uncertainty? ›
- Recognize your dislike of uncertainty. ...
- Learn to sit with discomfort. ...
- Focus on what you can control. ...
- Build in a margin of safety. ...
- Be skeptical of those who seem certain.
Uncertainty is often centered on worries about the future and all the bad things you can anticipate happening. It can leave you feeling hopeless and depressed about the days ahead, exaggerate the scope of the problems you face, and even paralyze you from taking action to overcome a problem.What are the basic steps in uncertainty management? ›
1. Establish and update the project objectives and key stakeholders that "owns the objectives" Page 10 575 Agnar Johansen et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 119 ( 2014 ) 566 – 575 2. Identify – evaluate and decide action on the opportunities 3. Identify – evaluate and decide action on the threats 4.What reduces risk of uncertainty? ›
Planning Reduces the risk of uncertainties: Organisations have to face many uncertainties and unexpected situations every day.How does uncertainty affect a person? ›
Uncertainty and affect are fundamental and interrelated aspects of the human condition. Uncertainty is often associated with negative affect, but in some circumstances, it is associated with positive affect. In this article, we review different explanations for the varying relationship between uncertainty and affect.Why is it so hard to live with uncertainty? ›
Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.What is the 90 second rule Tony Robbins? ›
The 90-second rule is one of Tony Robbins' natural remedies for anxiety. Accept that you feel fearful in the moment and look at a timer or clock; you have 90 seconds to feel terrible. Align your head and your heart through heart breathing and allow yourself 90 seconds to feel self-pity or fear or anger or worry.What are the six basic needs? ›
The six human needs are Certainty, Variety, Significance, Connection, Growth and Contribution. We all have a need for certainty, safety, stability and predictability in our lives. We like to feel secure in our jobs, in our homes and in our relationships.
What causes uncertainty? ›
Uncertainty is the result of having limited knowledge about an occurrence or event, making it difficult to control, plan, or predict a future outcome, which can often be distressing. Most people are creatures of habit and prefer to have a plan or routine in place.Why do we struggle with uncertainty? ›
Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.What uncertainty does to the brain? ›
Yale neuroscientists found that uncertainty can be healthy for your brain because you learn more in situations that are unsure. In a predictable setting, your brain doesn't need to do as much. It becomes a couch potato of sorts. But when situations change, it works harder.Is uncertainty the root of fear? ›
The root of fear is the uncertainty of security. J. Krishnamurti.What God says about uncertainty? ›
Our comfort through uncertainty is God's unfailing and faithful love. He loves us and cares for us enough to faithfully bring us through this life into his kingdom, as he did for his Son through the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). There, all our desires will be met, and we will live the best of lives.How do you get peace with uncertainty? ›
- Recognize your dislike of uncertainty. ...
- Learn to sit with discomfort. ...
- Focus on what you can control. ...
- Build in a margin of safety. ...
- Be skeptical of those who seem certain.