What does the future hold?
If this question made you break out in a sweat, you’re not alone. Because we can’t see the future, uncertainty is unavoidable—but one thing we know for sure is that facing the unknown is downright uncomfortable for most people. While some people tolerate uncertainty better than others, research shows that most of us wind up feeling anxious and stressed. In fact, in one study out of University College London, participants opted to receive a painful electric shock, rather than waiting with the uncertainty that they had a 50 percent chance of getting shocked.
“Uncertainty can feel dangerous,” says Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of California who studies how people cope with uncertain waiting periods. “If we don’t know what’s coming, we can’t prepare for it—and that means we could be caught off-guard by something harmful.”
To protect ourselves against that, our brains are wired with an early-alert system of anxiety and worry. This worry can be a good thing: It motivates us to resolve the uncertainty or deal with the challenge, Sweeny says. The problem is that we can’t always do that.
Life is filled with unexpected moments that we can’t immediately fix, so the negative feelings linger even when we aren’t in danger. In these moments, the worry can leave us stressed, distracted, unfocused, and unable to sleep, she says.
While there is no fool-proof way to wipe out all of your worries over uncertainty, there are things you can do to make it easier to bear, starting right now:
1. Play Through the Possibilities
Uncertainty leaves us feeling helpless because we aren’t sure what to do, says Julie Norem, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Wellesley College and author of the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Thinking through the range of possible outcomes and how you’ll manage if they do occur can help to ease the stress of waiting. You may even land on a new idea that could improve your chances of a positive outcome.
So, the next time you’re feeling uncertain, prime yourself for the possibilities by asking yourself, “Is there anything I can do to improve my chance of a good outcome?”
- Yes? Well, there you go…go do that!
- If the answer is “no,” take a minute to prepare for the worst. Then, seek out the silver linings—little glimmers of hope or goodness that exist even if the worst does come to pass. Once you’ve done what is within your power to do, you can feel less stressed and distracted.
2. Go with the Flow
Throw yourself into a compelling activity—the distraction will help you break free from rumination, Sweeny says. And go all in. Choose something challenging or fascinating, so you become fully absorbed. Merely channel surfing or taking on a mindless task won’t be enough to capture your attention and could leave you feeling more restless. Here are some ideas:
- Martial arts
3. Move into the Moment
Much of our distress around uncertainty is rooted in the past—we fixate on memories of when things did go wrong. Mindfulness meditation can move people into the present moment, according to Sweeny’s research. Instead of ruminating about what might happen or what has happened, mindfulness can help you be engaged in the right now, where there is no uncertainty.
4. Vent to a Friend
Pretending to be fine when you are on the verge of falling apart will only add to your stress, Norem says, but sharing your feelings with a trusted friend or family member can make uncertainty easier to bear. Knowing when you need to reach out or accept the help that comes your way can be an empowering experience that demonstrates self-awareness, strengthens bonds, and can leave you stronger than you were before. They may not know exactly how to help, but it’s okay to tell them what you need (even if what you need is just someone to listen to you).
Polly Campbell is a veteran author and speaker specializing in psychology, resilience, and wellness topics for more than 20 years. She is the author of three books: How to Live an Awesome Life: How to Live Well. Do Good. Be Happy; Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People; and How to Reach Enlightenment. Tweet her @PLCampbell.