Thursday, October 15, 2015

How to Accept Uncertainty (and Stop Worrying)

Are you a worrier? If so, you've probably tried all kinds of things to alleviate or control the worry. If you worry about your health, your children, your job, or your finances, you may have become super-protective and vigilant in an effort to feel safer and more in control. The problem is that anything can happen at any time, and deep down inside we know we're ultimately not in control.

What you might not know about worry is that it's avoidable, but maybe not in the way you think. As a worrier myself, I know that our intuitive efforts to lessen our worry don't really work. Some of these include:
  • Trying to rationalize that our fears are unwarranted or statistically unlikely to play out.
  • Trying to push the worry out by: telling our brains to shut up, thinking a different thought, or engaging in another activity. 
  • Attempting to manipulate the uncertain outcome through affirmations, prayer, bargaining with God, etc. (Note: a couple of these may be good practices in general, but they don't eliminate the worry habit.)
The reason none of this works is that you can't cure avoidance with more avoidance! Worry is an abstract thought/feeling haze, like static on a radio dial. It's a way to avoid facing life's inevitable uncertainty and the vivid, technicolor images that accompany full-blown anxiety. Worry is a slow, steady, sometimes chronic, dose of distraction.

Psychologists Michel Dugas and Robert Ladouceur have developed a two-step process for what they call Uncertainty Training. They found that their clients with anxiety were unable to tolerate not knowing what was going to happen. In fact, one of their clients reported that he would rather know a negative for sure, than be uncertain about a positive.

This might sounds odd, but I've known several people who rushed into a negative outcome or belief about their future, instead of adopting a "wait and see" attitude. In one case, it involved filing for an unwanted divorce. In another case, a 19-year-old woman declared that she was destined to never find true love and would spend her life alone, instead of hoping that Mr. Right would come along, which was not guaranteed. And the author, Geneen Roth, wrote that she was so constantly worried that something might happen to her husband, that she almost wished he would just die and get it over with!

Dugas and Ladouceur list the following as elements of unproductive worry. They often involve:
  • Unanswerable questions
  • Unsolvable problems
  • Things that are unknowable
  • Chain reactions (where one thought leads to another)
  • Relying on anxiety as a guide
  • Demands for perfect solutions
  • Demands for total control
When you feel you can't tolerate uncertainty, thoughts go like this: "I don't know what's going to happen. I can't stand not being in control of the outcome, so I will distract myself (by worrying) until I know what's going to happen." The problem is that so many things in life are uncertain. You can waste the better part of your life avoiding facing your fears of what "might" happen.

The following are Dugas and Ladouceur's Uncertainty Training steps:

Step 1:  Examine the costs and benefits of accepting uncertainty
  • Cost: When you accept, for instance, that you could get laid off at work, you may feel initial anxiety and nervousness that you're letting your guard down. Ask yourself: "What action can I take today that would really help?"
  • Benefit: If you accept that you might be laid off no matter what you do, and accept that you can't eliminate the possibility of it happening, then it takes some of the pressure off, clears your mind mind from the trance of dread, and makes it possible for you to consider possible options. There is relief in not trying to control something you cannot control.
Step 2:  Flood yourself with uncertainty
  • Instead of warding off and avoiding the the feared outcome, you confront it head-on. Repeat over and over again, "It's possible that I could lose my job," or "I might lose my job." This may cause an initial spike in anxiety, but eventually you'll see that you are not destroyed by the thought. And if repeated frequently enough, you may even become bored!  
This week, I encourage you to take an honest look at your relationship with not knowing what's going to happen. You might not like uncertainty but, as an old friend of mine once said, "the only security in life lies in accepting the insecurities of life."

Good luck, and I hope you enjoy a worry-free week.