Use Uncertainty to Your Advantage
You can’t avoid the unknown, but you don’t have to let it take you off your game.
As recent history has made extra-super-hyper clear, no one can predict the future, not even that psychic who somehow knew you’d adopt a dog. Most, if not all, of us just endured our most unexpected and unpredictable year and a half ever (and we’re stronger for it). But life will continue to be uncertain. Is it OK to book that trip to Mexico with friends for next month? Which grad school will you get into? Will that IRL marathon actually happen? Every moment ahead of the one you’re in is undecided. Uncertainty is inevitable.
Which is why getting even more comfortable with it can help tame your anxiety — and may even be the push you need to achieve goals that feel out of reach. “The only thing given in this world is change. The more we can accept that, the more change can feel exciting, like an infusion of new energy,” says Mollie Eliasof, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in New York City.
Why Uncertainty Throws Us Off
It’s human nature to feel uneasy when we don’t know what’s coming. To our early ancestors, “uncertainty equaled danger and needed to be avoided at all costs,” says Robin Buckley, PhD, an executive coach in New Hampshire. Cave too dark to see whether a hungry sabertooth tiger might be lurking inside? Better to just steer clear.
Our instinct to avoid the unknown runs so deep that we may prefer to suffer through something familiar than try the proverbial unmarked door. Case in point: In one British study, people were less stressed when they knew for sure they’d be getting a painful electric shock than they were when the chance of getting shocked was 50/50.
“When we have the ability to explore and yet get locked into habits or patterns, even good ones, it doesn’t allow for expansion, creativity or new growth.”
PhD, Executive Coach
Why It’s Time to Embrace the Big “?”
There are obviously occasions when sticking with what you know is smart. No one’s gonna say you should pick a dark, abandoned side street over your usual well-lit route when you’re headed home late at night. “But when we have the ability to explore and yet get locked into habits or patterns, even good ones, it doesn’t allow for expansion, creativity or new growth,” explains Buckley.
Learning to be cool with murky circumstances, however, “can lead us to people and things we might never have found if we stayed on autopilot,” says Buckley. And uncertainty can make you more motivated to achieve a successful outcome, University of Chicago research shows. One theory? Taking a risk can be exciting, and excitement is motivating.
The even greater plus side: Accepting the unknown starts to feel a little easier every time you do it. “Facing uncertain or challenging situations helps us recalibrate our natural alarm system and approach more opportunities in the future,” says Michael Ambrose, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. In short, we can develop gutsiness and self-trust along the way.
Although the unknown might seem unsettling AF, you really can handle it. A Yale University study on monkeys found that unpredictable scenarios trigger a boost in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for managing emotional reactions. It’s thought that this same mechanism can help our human brains laser focus on the most important info in uncertain times to make the best decision.
If the idea of trusting that good may come from uncertainty (or that even if it doesn’t, you’ll be OK) seems easier said than done, that’s because…it is. But warming up to the what-if’s is totally possible. What’s key:
1. Go beyond A or B.
The anxiety of not knowing can be fueled by getting locked into an either/or mindset, explains Eliasof. Say your job isn’t really doing it for you anymore, but you like that you get to WFH. When considering your options, you feel trapped between A) either doing work you don’t love, or B) stressing about finding a new job that doesn’t require you to go to an office.
The thing is, those actually aren’t the only two choices. “You can chop A and B into multiple categories,” says Eliasof. “That allows you to open up the possibilities and gain a sense of control.” Staying at your current job could mean choosing to focus on tasks that give you more fulfillment or cultivating stronger relationships with your team that can help you advance. Deciding to look for a new one could mean taking classes to make your skills more marketable before applying for other positions. More exciting than scary that way, isn’t it?
2. Review your personal history.
Instead of worrying about how you’ll handle a new situation, think back to how you’ve coped with challenging experiences in the past, like managing life mid-pandemic. “Maybe you’re resourceful and optimistic, so tap into those strengths,” says Buckley. “You know they’ve worked for you before, and therefore, they can work for you again."
FYI, teeing up the traits that’ve helped you succeed is more powerful than just saying, “I got this.” That’s because it gives your brain hard evidence that you already have the skills to cope, says Buckley. You realize that even though you’re headed into unknown territory, there’s one thing you do know: that you’ve been there, dealt with that — and you can do it again.
3. Break it down.
Uncertainty can strike when you have a huge task to tackle and no clear sense of how you’ll get it done. When that happens, make a roadmap of mini tasks and focus on getting to the next one by a certain date, recommends Eliasof. “You’ll notice a sense of accomplishment as you complete each task, and that can give you a sense of more control and certainty,” she says. Plus, having that visual aid can help keep you grounded if you start to spiral.
4. Be nice to yourself.
If a kid told you they were worried about something, how would you handle it? Probably not by filling their head with the worst-case scenarios or by dwelling on how daunting things are. So give yourself the same TLC, says Eliasof.
Talk through your concerns with someone you trust. Think about the positive outcomes that could happen. Or give yourself permission to do something that’ll take your mind off the situation for a little while, whether it’s shooting hoops or watching ridiculous YouTube videos. “The point isn’t to dismiss your feelings by saying everything’s going to be OK. It’s to soothe and support your fear,” she says. Not only can this have a calming effect, it can also help you get clarity, making problem-solving easier to access.
5. Be in the here and now.
Freaking out about the future means your brain is hurtling ahead instead of focusing on the present, where none of that bad stuff has happened yet. To practice staying in the moment, Buckley likes to write down a nightly list of three things that brought her joy that day. “It primes you to subconsciously look for those things all day long, and they can be as simple as a ladybug crawling on the window or your dog licking your face first thing in the morning,” she says. “That strengthens your ability to stay in the moment and control your thoughts, which can ultimately help control your feelings.”
Because while you might not get final say about whether that trip to Mexico or in-person marathon actually happens, you 100 percent call the shots on how you handle the outcome.
Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi