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Uncertainty and Worrying Well

As life marches on, we often experience much change and uncertainty, especially in a transient city such as Dubai. Tolerating uncertainty and frequent change can be challenging. I share below the biological reasons we find uncertainty difficult and I offer some strategies to help.

Biological basis to disliking uncertainty.

There is a biological basis to why it might be difficult to tolerate uncertainty. If our ancestors assumed there might be a tiger in the bush, and there isn’t, the worst that can happen is that we endure some unnecessary anxiety. But if we assume there isn’t a tiger in the bush, and there is; it doesn’t end well.

This tendency to think negatively keeps us alive as a species. We are intrinsically predisposed to dislike uncertainty and our evolutionary coping mechanism was to assume the worst. This predisposition to find the negative has stayed with us, and while it keeps us alive, it quickly starts to be unhelpful in the day-to-day.

Seeking pessimistic certainty and its emotional cost.

In the face of uncertainty regarding jobs or length of time you’re likely to remain in this city, you may notice our collective primal natural tendency to seek pessimistic certainty instead. If we assume the worst, we can prepare for it and thus survive. This strategy isn’t all bad. But it does come at a cost. Assuming the worst will happen can have a negative impact on motivation, concentration, mood and self-worth.

Rather than assuming the worst will happen, it is better to consider what the worst case scenario might be and think about how you would cope with it. You may wish to outline a plan as to how you would deal with it if the need arose. And then park that idea. Resist getting caught up in the worst case scenario (the pessimistic certainty) and instead remind yourself that should it indeed happen, you have a plan and you would cope. Then turn your attention back to concrete ways in which you can make the worst case less likely. (e.g. throwing yourself into a project, networking, applying for positions).

Time to worry but worry well.

Some people cope with uncertainty by worrying about all the various scenarios that might occur. By running through in their minds what may or may not happen, they feel more prepared for every eventuality. However, this has a shelf life. This is a perfectly reasonable strategy if the worry only takes up a few minutes of the day. What tends to happen though is that worry takes over, filling one’s mind with anxious thoughts, making it difficult to sleep, focus on moving forward, or concentrating on the here and now.

A more constructive use of worry is to allocate a time each day to worry. Choose a time that isn’t just before bed or before a big meeting. When it comes to the time, sit down with a pen and paper and worry. Worry as much as you like for 20 minutes. Set an alarm to go off so you know when the worry time is up. Write down everything you’re worried about, be it big or small, professional or personal. Get it all down. Then go to the top and ask yourself what you can do about each point. If there’s something you can do, make a plan to do it. If there’s nothing you can do, move on to the next point. Keep going until the time is up or when you finish, whichever is soonest. When you’re done, get up, move somewhere else and ideally do something engaging and positive, like playing with your child, going to the gym, or cooking dinner. If or when you notice the worries popping back into your mind, tell them that you’ll worry about them at worry time and gently shift your focus back to the task at hand.

People often find this to be a helpful strategy because a) putting worries down on paper means you don’t have to retain them in your head, b) there are often fewer than you think c) the benefits of worrying are maintained without the worries taking over and d) this approach is a departure from the unrealistic expectation to simply stop worrying.

You’re already coping with uncertainty.

You tolerate uncertainty every time you get in a car. In so doing, you know that you can’t control what others will do, you know that not predicting the future can’t stop us from living and you accept there are some things we just don’t know. You do this every day. Similarly, every time you get in a car you do everything within your capability to prevent the negative from happening. Apply this strategy to uncertainty in other areas of your life, and you may find it takes the edge off enough to allow you to get on with today.

Dr. Marie Thompson,

Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Director




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