Managing Uncertainty – The What Ifs, The Maybes, and The Who Knows

A few months ago, my husband and I purchased our first home.  We did all of the required inspections, even going above and beyond in some instances.  We debated, we questioned; what if the inspectors missed something?  What if we’re offering too much? What if the neighbors turn out to be nightmares?  Eventually however, a decision had to be made.  We had to accept that it was impossible to answer every question, no way to feel with 100% certainty that we’d made the right decision.  As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, almost everyone with whom I meet struggles with these questions – the nagging doubts that tell them that this bridge might be dangerous, that the red splotch on the floor could be infectious blood.  So how do you learn to manage a life that’s replete with uncertainty and unknowns?

  1. Accept that it’s not possible to live a life free of doubt and uncertainty:  Folks who struggle with anxiety often believe that if they can just check enough, plan enough, worry enough, that they will be able to prepare for any and every eventuality.  Unfortunately, not only is this not possible, it contributes to overall feelings of distress and anxiety, and is incredibly time-consuming!  No amount of preparation will eliminate chance from your life.  Practicing mindfulness is a proven method that’s helped many people learn to navigate and accept life’s surprises!
  2. Learn to reframe and challenge how you view the unexpected:  When most people sit in my office, they assume that anything unexpected that happens will automatically be bad, disastrous even.  My uncertainty about a house purchase led me down a dark path of exploding gas pipes and nightmare neighbors.  It would have been helpful to consider other possibilities.  So, am I telling you to just think happy thoughts and believe that everything will be perfect?  Should I have imagined that I would find buried treasure in the yard?  Not at all!  Consider the likely scenarios (e.g. every new house has some problems), rather than the worst case possibilities.  Remind yourself that on the off-chance the worst does happen, you could and would cope with it!
  3. Don’t let your doubts dictate your behavior:  Once you start changing your behavior based on your fear of the unknown, it can be a hard habit to break.  Are you already avoiding driving through tunnels because you may get stuck?  Have you stopped flying on planes because they might crash?  Do you avoid telling people how you feel about them because you might get rejected?  Start taking small steps to change your behavior; maybe go to the airport and watch planes take off and land, then work up to taking short flights.  Is your avoidance interfering in your life?  Seeing a licensed therapist who is trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy  can help you avoid the avoidance trap!
  4. Learn to see uncertainty as something that makes life beautiful and exciting: Take a moment and reflect upon just how boring life would be if every single moment was predictable.  If you know the punchline of a joke before it comes, you’d never laugh.  If you knew you would find a hidden field of wildflowers during a hike, you wouldn’t experience delight.  Your heart would never race with anticipation.  In short, you’d be missing out on emotions and parts of life that are wonderful!

“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.” – Blaise Pascal.  In order to experience the richness of life, we must embrace the highs, the lows, and the mundane.  So far, my house hasn’t exploded, and the neighbors appear to be benignly indifferent.  Things have gone wrong, things I never could have imagined, and I’ve handled them.  No buried treasure though, but that won’t stop me from digging.

Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety and related disorders, behavioral parent training, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York, Florida, and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email to set up a free consultation.  Visit my website for more information.

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