The certainty of uncertainty


In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes – Benjamin Franklin (1789).

How do we understand uncertainty?

Uncertainty has been described as a psycho-allergen, with individuals who struggle with uncertainty responding with symptoms of worry and anxiety. This concept can be likened to that of physical allergies, such as hayfever. Non-hayfever sufferers can happily be covered in pollen without any effect whilst others suffer terrible symptoms with even the slightest exposure.

Some individuals, you may know some of them, appear to flourish and thrive within uncertainty. They may present themselves as cool, calm and collected with an ability to ‘go with the flow’. However, many people see uncertainty as dangerous or threatening, often assuming that uncertainty is a vehicle for negative or catastrophic outcomes. For those that struggle with uncertainty, the possibility that something awful may happen can be unbearable, even if the probability of this is as low as 0.01.


Is my relationship with uncertainty a part of the problem?

Due to the discomfort caused by uncertainty, many will attempt to increase feelings of certainty. This could include strategies such as worrying, preparing for futuristic scenarios, performing rituals or by avoiding situations where uncertainty exists. As you can imagine, this can be exhausting, especially when the feared scenarios rarely come to fruition – but we weren’t to know that, right? What if the terrible thing did happen?

Despite feeling useful at the time, attempts to increase certainty can instead lead to the maintenance of mental health difficulties, including Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). So, if we know that methods of increasing feelings of uncertainty instead lead to a greater discomfort, do we need to rethink our relationship with the beast itself?

Let's be curious for a second..

Take a moment to reflect on your relationship with uncertainty. If you find uncertainty uncomfortable, it might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

Do you feel uncomfortable when things are ambiguous or open ended?

Do you respond with strategies that feel helpful at the time but are ultimately tiring?

How often do your feared scenarios come true?

What if uncertainty does not have to mean danger?

What if the thoughts or images that pop into my mind when faced with uncertainty are not predictors of the outcome and are, indeed, just thoughts?

How can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) help?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can support you to reflect on, and understand, your relationship with uncertainty. By doing so, you may notice that your efforts to increase certainty are not working for you. If this is the case, CBT will work to identify your relationship and beliefs associated with uncertainty and introduce a curiosity around this. Over time, CBT will support you to develop your skills in tolerating uncertainty, gradually increasing your confidence that uncertainty may not always lead to negative outcomes.

Specifically, CBT would work to:

Recognise and manage worries associated with uncertainty

Challenge any beliefs you hold about uncertainty being dangerous.

Increase your skills tolerating uncertainty through behavioural experiments.

Reduce any unhelpful behaviours that ‘increase certainty’, such as over planning or certain rituals.

Develop your problem solving skills for any practical issues that are maintaining your anxiety.

Cement your learning from therapy and to see how you can continue to utilise this in your life.

If you would like to discuss how we can support you with this, don’t hesitate to get in touch!