A common response to uncertainty is worry. The phenomenon of worry is considered to arise from cognitive processes involved in anxiety whose purpose is to maintain high levels of vigilance for personal danger. In other words as a form of self-protection against the future (1). Problematically the alarm comes to be treated as the danger itself, rather than as a signal of potential danger, and because worry distracts from feelings of uncertainty we may worry repeatedly and habitually and even strategically in a futile attempt to create a state of certainty out of a state of uncertainty.
Cost – Benefit?
Let’s for a minute examine this phenomenon as a cost–benefit analysis. Cost–benefit analysis is built on a very sound fundamental principle: advantages should be weighed against disadvantages, costs against benefits. In the case of worrying what are the advantages? Does it make anything more certain? Does it change outcomes? Does having a false sense of certainty or probability or possibility justify the negativity experienced during the worrying process? These are questions that only we, individually, can answer but in most instances the advantages, if any, are far outnumbered by the disadvantages. Yet many people do it. They worry because of uncertainty even though and despite the fact that uncertainty is inevitable.
Below I will propose a 3 component strategy for managing uncertainty.
One coping strategy for managing uncertainty is acceptance or co-existence. The Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine asserted that uncertainty is an inherent cosmic expression, deeply embedded within the core of reality. The associated psychic expression of this experience, it is claimed, is anxiety which, as per the teachings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (below), is conceived not as pathology but rather as an essential state of being emerging simultaneously with uncertainty. Anxiety therefore in this instance is viewed as the embodied expression of creative uncertainty and as such, according to May (1977), it is not anxiety itself that is problematic but rather our resistance to it (2).
When dealing with uncertainty our typical response is an instinctual drive to impose order and regain control. As creatures in an unpredictable natural world we humans have consistently sought the related reassurances provided by order and control and we have been reassured greatly in this regard by the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the Enlightenment (3). Whereas the emergence of the classical scientific paradigm at the time and the associated search for universal laws has provided huge benefits for humanity it may also have been a double edged sword in the sense that the line between discovering order in nature and imposing order on nature has become blurred.
The philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator Martin Buber (1958) put it well when he claimed that “the world takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot hold it to its word. It has no density . . . it comes even when it is not summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held (4).”
The notion of inherent uncertainty in the universe is a challenge for those who crave certainty. For uncertainty to make sense, according to Gordon (2003), we must relinquish the simplistic, predictable, closed systems view of the universe and embrace a complex world comprised of interdependent, interpenetrating networks of relationship, one that embraces uncertainty, unpredictability, and the unknowable (3). So rather than focusing solely on eradicating uncertainty and its sidekick anxiety maybe we could instead focus on trying to change our relationship with them?
2. Emotional Intelligence
Another coping strategy for dealing with uncertainty is working on our emotional intelligence. When we face uncertainty the limbic system in our brain can respond with a knee-jerk fear reaction which inhibits good decision-making. People who are good at dealing with uncertainty can spot this fear and contain and override it before it gets out of control. To do so requires a degree of emotional intelligence, a component of which is to label the unfounded thoughts that fear tries to intensify as irrational and not real (5). This allows space to focus more accurately and logically on the factual information available which enables better quality decision making. It also brings much needed calm to the nervous system.
As we can see emotionally intelligent people do not allow themselves to become preoccupied with the uncertainties that they face. Instead they stay positive, they don’t dwell on problems, they don’t seek perfection, they reach out to people for practical help or emotional support as required and they embrace what they cannot control.
Speaking of control how many times have we heard athletes, coaches and business managers speaking about controlling the controllables? Good advice no doubt and practically a mantra at this stage but in these times of personal and global uncertainty perhaps we could reach a little deeper? In circumstances where so much of what we used to control or what we thought we controlled is now out of our control perhaps, as per the teachings of Kelly McGonigal, Ph D, we could ask ‘what can I choose in this moment?’ as opposed to – or perhaps in addition to – ‘what can I control?’(6).
The benefits of doing so are that we can step back from a reliance on a controlling mindset to instead consider underlying choices such as degrees of gratitude, self-compassion, acceptance, courage and assistance. In considering these choices the door to our value system opens as does the potential for metacognition. Metacognition refers to the act of thinking about thinking or knowing about knowing. It is higher order thinking that gives us an insight into how we think and in this case how we respond to our perceived need for certainty or our reaction to its absence. By being conscious of how we think and respond we can then identify the most effective ways of doing so.
One way of being conscious of how we think and respond is to be open to the possibility of uncertainty as a positive force in our lives. The tendency to view ambiguous and uncertain situations as appealing versus threatening is known as ambiguity tolerance and research has shown that people who are more tolerant of ambiguity report being happier (7.1) , more motivated to learn (7.2), more self-efficacious (7.3) and more likely to engage in cross-cultural experiences (7.4).
Gelatt (1995) has called for uncertainty to be viewed positively and creatively rather than as something to be feared (8). Do you reframe uncertainty along these lines? If not, why not and would you consider doing so? Relatedly Gordon (2003) is of the opinion that uncertainty should be regarded as a natural manifestation that allows for creativity (3). Whereas some people acknowledge uncertainty but become fearful and disempowered, it should be noted that others respond openly and creatively and acceptingly and that they can ultimately derive benefit from it.
We appear to have a choice.
Cogbeh provides a range of Cognitive Behavioural Services in person and online to a broad demographic.
(1) Mathews, A. (1990). Why worry? A cognitive function of anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 28, 455–468.10.1016/0005-7967(90)90132-3
(2) May, R. (1977). The meaning of anxiety (Rev. ed.). New York: Norton.
(3) Gordon, K. (2003). The impermanence of being: Toward a psychology of uncertainty. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 43, 96–117.
(4) Buber, M. (1958). I and thou. New York: Scribner
(5) Bradberry, T. (2020) https://www.talentsmart.com/articles/11-Ways-Emotionally-Intelligent-People-Overcome-Uncertainty-1596789451-p-1.html
(6) McGonigal, K. (Undated) At: https://www.nicabm.com/3-step-approach-for-managing-uncertainty/
(7.1) Bardi, A., Guerra, V. M., Sharadeh, G., & Ramdeny, D. (2009). Openness and ambiguity intolerance: Their differential relations to wellbeing in the context of an academic life transition. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 219- 223. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.03.003. In: Jach, H. K. & Smillie, L. D. (Undated) Personality and Tolerance for Ambiguity: To Fear or Fly to the Unknown: Tolerance for Ambiguity and Big Five Personality Traits.
(7.2) Tapanes, M. A., Smith, G. G., & White, J. A. (2009). Cultural diversity in online learning: A study of the perceived effects of dissonance in levels of individualism/collectivism and tolerance of ambiguity. Internet and Higher Education, 12, 26-34. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2008.12.001. In: Jach, H. K. & Smillie, L. D. (Undated) Personality and Tolerance for Ambiguity: To Fear or Fly to the Unknown: Tolerance for Ambiguity and Big Five Personality Traits.
(7.3) Wolfradt, U., Oubaid, V., Straube, E. R., Bischoff, N., & Mischo, J. (1999). Thinking styles, schizotypal traits and anomalous experiences. Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 821-830. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00031-8. In: Jach, H. K. & Smillie, L. D. (Undated) Personality and Tolerance for Ambiguity: To Fear or Fly to the Unknown: Tolerance for Ambiguity and Big Five Personality Traits.
(7.4) Caligiuri, P., & Tarique, I. (2012). Dynamic cross-cultural competencies and global leadership effectiveness. Journal of World Business, 47(4), 612-622. doi:10.1016/j.jwb.2012.01.014. In: Jach, H. K. & Smillie, L. D. (Undated) Personality and Tolerance for Ambiguity: To Fear or Fly to the Unknown: Tolerance for Ambiguity and Big Five Personality Traits.
(8) Gelatt, H. B. (1995). Chaos and compassion. Counseling and Values, 39(2), 108–116