The need to know
The inability to tolerate uncertainty is something many of us experience. And there are just so many uncertainties in life right now. Will 19 July finally bring about the end of social restrictions? If not, then when? Will Winter change things? Will we ever get out of this period of our lives? Each question exacerbates our intolerance of uncertainty and at the same time increases our need to know the answers.
For some the recent four-week delay to Freedom Day is sound thinking: with the so-called new Delta variant on the rise and while we wait for vaccinations to take full effect, a month is not so long. But for others, this constant chopping and changing, toing and froing, indecision and uncertainty, are becoming more and more intolerable. And it can feel like more than just another missed deadline.
Preparing ourselves for the worst
The combination of fearing the unpredictable and yearning for the predictable can lead to catastrophising which in turn can lead to anxiety. We may find it hard to make a decision or put plans in place because we may feel we need to know how things will turn out first – but because we do not know what will happen as yet, we feel we cannot prepare. It is easy to see how this can become self-defeating: I can’t prepare because I don’t know what will happen, and because I’m unprepared I get more worried because whatever happens I won’t be ready.
It can even get to the point whereby we perceive worrying as a useful tool to manage our stress, in that we may believe that getting all worked up is a perfect way of preparing ourselves for the worst, so that there are no nasty surprises. We may find ourselves saying: “I can’t cope not knowing,” or “I know the chances of it happening are so small, but it still could happen,” or even “I need to be 100% sure.” And possibly even prefer that something bad happens right now, rather than go on not knowing what the eventual outcome will be.
Breaking the cycle
Using worry as a way of managing stress can reduce our experience of uncertainty but at a cost of remaining in a heightened state of agnation. This is the vicious cycle of worry. Our anxiety works as a way to manage the manifold unpleasant feelings attached to the unpredictability of life, but ultimately it keeps us in the dark.
The truth is worrying about something does not change the outcome of what will happen. Life is still as unpredictable as it ever was; and all we have achieved is to think of all the worst-case scenarios and work ourselves up in the process. What we need instead is to broaden our view of what is possible. To see things in the round and ultimately to challenge our intolerance of uncertainty. Because reducing our need for certainty, reduces our need to worry. As American psychologist Rollo May says:
‘In moving through rather than away from anxiety the individual not only achieves self-development but also enlarges the scope of his [or her] world.’
(from The Meaning of Anxiety)
Challenging our intolerance of uncertainty
All we really know at present is that we just don’t know how long we are going to have to live with some type of social restrictions in the future. And we don’t know how many new Covid variants will spring up in the colder months of the year. And the truth is we just cannot know because even the politicians and scientists in their infinite wisdom do not know all the answers yet. The very act of recognising this reality is the first step to enlarging our worldview.