Coping with Uncertainty

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

Our daily routines usually provide us with both predictability and stability. They provide us with a sense of reassurance and personal control. Familiar people, places, objects, noises, work schedules, all deliver a level of certainty. Despite this, our lives are often spiked with moments of uncertainty, and though some people can tolerate a high level of uncertainty it's also true that uncertainty often causes anxiety.

We can recognize the anxiety that results from uncertainty in various ways. Very often the person expends a good deal of energy on behaviors that provide some level of reassurance and they will frequently ask friends, relatives or others the same question in the hope they will get the same or an improved answer. They may be something of a perfectionist, unwilling to relinquish control of tasks in case they are performed to a low standard, or are incomplete. If by chance they do delegate to others the time is spent worrying.

Such people know that life is full of uncertainties yet they are often diligent in attempts to stack the odds in their favor. They may avoid public transport because of concerns it could be late. They may check things over and over to ensure nothing is missed, forgotten or incorrect. They may have several clocks or watches to ensure they are never late, they may choose the same meals because they are familiar and acceptable, and on it goes. The irony of these attempts to cope with uncertainty is they actually fuel anxiety and uncertainty further.

Uncertainty can certainly take its toll. The possibility of job loss, or a recurring illness, or perhaps waiting to hear someone is safe and well, can eat away at people to the point where it affects health. Uncertainty is also equated with negative outcomes in people who are anxious. Many students for example will predict they haven't revised enough, or they have done much worse than is actually the case.

There are certain benefits in adopting a more fatalistic approach to life but there are also times when uncertainty can be resolved through direct action.
If you have a concrete concern about something get the facts. Ask, research and enquire rather than engage in worried gossip, which is both unproductive and prone to wild exaggeration.

Some anxious people have fairly specific things they try to be certain about. It may help to list these and begin to learn to tolerate uncertainty by practicing something differently. For example, if one issue is ensuring all the doors and windows are locked, set a target to check them twice instead of the three times you usually do. Similarly, why not take a risk and order a different meal, or purchase some food item you've never tried before?

While you are trying new things remember to reflect back on your predictions about what you thought might happen. Did your anxiety increase? If it did, was it as bad as you predicted? What did you think might happen? Did it? How much of your attempts to let go were prevented by fears and negative thinking?

Don't beat yourself up if things aren't going as well as you hoped. You may not have the sort of support, encouragement, or personal resources of others. Judging yourself poorly is just another example of negative thinking.

Try to get exercise, sleep, and maintain a healthy diet. If your body is healthy and your mind is rested you will cope so much better.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of