Suzanne Bergmann, LCSW
The Impact of Intolerance of Uncertainty
Do you find it hard to make a decision or put a plan or solution in place, because you first need to know how it will work out? When you first heard CBT for insomnia has an 85-90% success rate, was your first thought “I’m probably in the 10%?” Do you prefer that something bad happens right now, rather than wait any longer not knowing what the final outcome will be? If this sounds like you then you may have difficulty tolerating uncertainty.
Often intolerance to uncertainty leads to the perception that worrying is useful to you. You may think that worrying is a way to prepare you for the worst or get you ready for every possible outcome. Maybe you view worrying as a way to avoid being caught off guard or to make life feel more predictable. Since worrying is likely reducing your feelings of uncertainty, you keep worrying more and more because you may believe it gives you more control over your life.
Worrying and striving for more certainty may seem useful but research has identified intolerance of uncertainty as a risk factor for many clinical conditions including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other emotional difficulties (Carleton et al, 2012; Renjan et al, 2016). Most of us do not question our own thinking or worrying. It may be helpful to consider the following questions:
· Has your worrying made anything more certain or more predictable?
· Has worrying actually changed the outcome of what will happen?
· After worrying, is life still as uncertain and unpredictable as it ever was?
· If you believe you have more control in your life by ensuring you keep worrying, can you identify the evidence that this is actually true?
· When you think of all the worst-case scenarios, what happens to your body? Your thoughts? Your behavior?
· Does having a false sense of certainty justify all the negative consequences of worrying?
“Worrying doesn’t seem to help me, now what?”
If you have concluded that worrying is not as useful as you once thought and have identified a need for certainty, you may also then be wondering what you can actually do about it. The next step is to challenge your need for certainty and begin to accept uncertainty. This is easier said and done but the questions listed below can help you begin to increase your tolerance of uncertainty.
How to Challenge Your Need for Certainty
· Can I ever really achieve certainty?
· What are the advantages to demanding certainty?
· What are the disadvantages to demanding certainty?
· Do I predict bad things when I’m uncertain? Could good things be just as likely to happen?
· What is the probability of what I predict happening?
· Are there times I can tolerate uncertainty? What do I do then?
· How do other people I know tolerate uncertainty? Can I learn from them?
How to Let Go of Your Intolerance of Uncertainty:
· What do you notice yourself doing when you are in need of certainty?
· What can you tell yourself that would help you not respond to this need of certainty?
· What can you tell yourself to let go of this need of certainty?
· What can you tell yourself to refocus on the present?
· What can you tell yourself when your mind wanders back to the need for certainty?
Carleton, R. N., Mulvogue, M. K., Thibodeau, M. A., McCabe, R. E., Antony, M. M., Asmundson, G. J. (2012). Increasingly certain about uncertainty: intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(3), 468–79.
Renjan, V., McEvoy, P. M., Handley, A. K., Fursland, A. (2016). Stomaching uncertainty: relationships among intolerance of uncertainty, eating disorder pathology, and comorbid emotional symptoms. Anxiety Disorders, 41, 88–95.