Dealing with Uncertainty

Dealing with Uncertainty

I had a chat with the Anxiety Podcast guy this week.  One of the things that I noticed, while talking to him and looking at the situations where we have anxiety is that much of it stems from uncertainty.

Uncertainty is where we have many interrelated events, or pressures in our life and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  Uncertainty makes us feel helpless because we cannot control the outcome.  We don’t know how it’s going to shake out and this gives us anxiety.

Our minds don’t cope well with uncertainty. They are not designed to.  They like things to be resolved.  That uncertainty of how things are going to turn out raises tension, which leads to stress and anxiety.

Think about a recent movie you watched or novel you read.  Was there tension? That tension was built through the uncertainty of the characters’ fate.  You didn’t know how it was going to end.  You were excited and nervous for them.  I bet at the end of that story it all worked out and they lived happily ever after or some other resolution of certainty.  That resolution of certainty makes us happy.

Unfortunately, the only thing that is certain in our real life is change.  We like to pretend that today is going to be the same as yesterday and tomorrow will too. That’s not how it works.

When you try to look into the future you see branching probabilities that lead to different outcomes.  Some of those outcomes might not be pleasant.  That uncertainty gives you stress.  You will see this most starkly outlined in high relief during times of transition.  Career changes.  Relationship changes.  Beginning or ending a chapter in your life. Moving from a known place to an unknown place.  These are the spots where uncertainty makes you stressed.

One of the ways to deal with it is to stop trying to find an answer.  Stop thinking deterministically.  I used to council the people who worked for me to think of it as a cloud of probabilities.  You can’t create a specific outcome but you can move the cloud, like herding a big flock of agitated turkeys.

Or if you’re more mathematically wired, think of this infinite series of possible outcomes and apply the Pareto principle.  All you need to do is control 20% of the uncertainty and you can get 80% of the outcome you want.  If it is indeed an infinite series then your calculus will tell you that 80% of the value is in the first handful of terms.

(That probably doesn’t help), so what are other, practical ways to deal with uncertainty?

The first thing that helps is to let go of the outcomes. Uncertainty gives us stress because we don’t know the outcome.  If we can detach ourselves emotionally from the outcomes the uncertainty loses its stress and we can better focus on the now, the journey.

This allows you to work the plan today that will result in a better outcome in the future.  All you need to worry about is did you do what you needed to do today?  This is the ‘one step at a time’ or ‘one day at a time’ philosophy that takes a big hairy problem and resizes it to something our little brains can chew on.

This will allow you to live the adventure that life is, today.

One of the stress elements here is when potential results could be bad. Our brains spin out of control down the bad path and make up all kinds of horrible outcomes.  The logic goes like, ‘If I move to Cleveland, and I can’t find a new job and I don’t have any friends,  I’ll run out of money and I’ll get thrown into the street and I’ll get kidnapped by human traffickers and be sold into slavery in Transylvania…” Or some other such ridiculous scenario.

Even worse now you start to fixate on the horrible outcome and even though this outcome is more remote than being struck by lightning while riding a unicorn you become emotionally incapacitated.

Stop that.

Seriously. Ask a reasonable question.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” and then mitigate that.  You move to Cleveland, you don’t like it after 3 months you can come back and live in your mother’s basement.

Better yet, why not replace that question with “What’s the best that can happen?” You move to Cleveland, find a great job, make new friends, learn new things, have cool adventures.  What do you have to do today to make that movie play out?

Refocus on the possibilities, not the uncertainties. It is subtle, but in doing so you flip the negative to positive.

Having a positive attitude about the potential outcomes flips the stress on its head. Whenever you feel the stress coming on play the positive outcome movie and smile. You’re going to love Cleveland.  Now you are free to use your skills to create that positive outcome.

It is also very helpful to focus on the things you control.  You may not control the hiring in Cleveland, but you can control the 10 phone calls you make today.  You can control the way you react and feel.

Which leads to your next thing that you control – action.  If you are worried about unknown outcomes, take action.  Do something.  Write that letter, read that book, make that call, chop that wood, carry that water, till your garden.  Action beats worry every time.

As in all stressful situations it helps to be able to talk through it with someone.  Even if that someone is yourself.  If you can write or journal through your uncertainties you will see that they don’t hold as much power as you are giving them.  I personally like to use a nice long trail run to work through the tangled web of the universe.

We like to think there is some sort of sure thing.  Some sort of fixed destination.  There is no destination and there never will be.  Don’t waste energy trying to create it or hold onto it.  Detach yourself from the destination and enjoy the journey.

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