When I left for university my mother wanted to be certain of my safe arrival at the beginning of each term. It was a 2-hour drive and I was sharing the journey with a friend who had a car. She wanted me to call her when I arrived. When you’re 18 walking down the street to the nearer phone booth to tell your mum you’ve arrived may have seemed a little too much – this was before mobile phones!
Little did I know then that the next thing I did was reducing her safety behaviours in order to increase her tolerance to uncertainty and reduce her risk of developing stress responses. What I did was that I gradually got her to agree that we should reverse the thinking: if there was no phone call, it meant everything was fine. It took a bit of time and practice, but it worked.
How interesting to think about this story now!
Our days are filled with situations that bring uncertainty: how long until the bus arrives? Will I get this pay rise? How is the redundancy plan going to affect me? Will my lottery ticket hold the lucky numbers? Will my essay get a pass? Each situation can bring fear, hope or excitement. Sometimes all three, like the minutes before joining a networking event.
Our brains are designed to predict the future: we analyse the past, assess the present, and make predictions in order to survive and thrive in the new environment. Consequently, we don’t like not knowing, we don’t like to wait, and we develop behaviours to help us deal with uncertainty.
Uncertainty affects our physical and mental health. The way we cope, like many things in life, have developed over time and are a mix of nature and nurture. For example, if you’re often stuck in traffic, or your friend habitually arrives late, you may assume that he’s delayed by traffic if he’s late to meet you at the coffee shop. However if this same friend is usually punctual, and hasn’t arrived after a 20-minute wait, you may start to worry. In the first instance you would be said to have a low intolerance of uncertainty. In the latter example, your intolerance of uncertainty would be higher.
Does it matter?
In some cases, we can develop and become too reliant on “safety behaviours”: things that we do to check the facts and reduce our anxiety linked to not knowing. For example ringing our partner to check they have arrived safely to work. Tracking our child with a GPS tag. Watching the dot on the map after ordering a taxi pickup. Research in Canada found a 20% increase in uncertainty intolerance between 1994 and 2014, which they linked to an increased connectivity. Time will tell, but it is not difficult to spot that many people waiting for something or queueing, in industrialised countries, will engage with a mobile device (safety behaviour, which becomes a default behaviour) rather than simply be left with their thoughts.
Can we reduce our intolerance to uncertainty?
Yes, we can! We can gradually build up resilience towards uncertainty, a bit like tolerance towards certain allergies can be built (more in the pdf document linked below). What are your safety behaviours? How could you reduce using them? How could you include some mindfulness instead? When you face an uncertain outcome, what can help you to think of the silver lining, or even the best possible outcome in a given situation?
Much of this is perspective, mindset, and changing our habits.
If you wish to take things further, I invite you to answer the New Scientist’s quiz to find out how tolerant you are when facing uncertainty – you can be certain of knowing once you’ve answered the questions.
If you are finding it difficult to cope with uncertainty and would like more information, the following document published by Anxiety Canada has some great advice. As always, if you recognise symptoms worth discussing with a professional, please get in touch with your doctor or therapist.