Intolerance of uncertainty and exposure to uncertainty as an opportunity

I described the nature of intolerance of uncertainty in my last post. Let’s talk more about shifting your interpretation of uncertainty to opportunity, rather than fear.

When you’re feeling very anxious, it’s normal to attend to your anxious sensations, uncomfortable feelings, and catastrophic thoughts over everything else. You are not being selfish or going crazy. The nature of the anxious response is such that your mind fixes your attention on potential threat in order to help you survive. Some part of you knows that you aren’t running from a tiger and it would be okay to stop scanning the environment for danger. Another part of you does not know whether or not you are in danger. That part of you is uncertain. It’s okay. You’re not doing it on purpose, it isn’t your fault that it’s happening, and you aren’t doomed to feel this way forever.

You just need to be more strategic.
Let’s first honor evolution. Way to go fellow homo sapien! We made it!
Your response to fear was adaptive the first time it happened.
If you are in danger and you avoid, you survive.
If you are not in danger and you avoid, you will develop an intolerance of uncertainty.

Let’s review how this happens:

  • You were born with a body that is vulnerable to anxiety sensitivity. Your parents are to blame and also they and your ancestors overcame all sorts of trauma so that you exist. Anger and gratefulness can coexist.
  • You had a thought or sensation that arrived with a spike of fear.
  • You responded to the thought or sensation as if it was danger. You avoided.
  • The avoidance gave you short-term relief, but also anticipation of it coming back. Anticipation is another name for uncertainty.
  • Now, when you feel anticipation and uncertainty, you have the urge to avoid again.
  • When you avoid, you feel more uncertain.
  • You start to hate the feeling of uncertainty.

Breaking this cycle involves recognizing it as a trick. You got tricked into thinking that avoidance is helpful for you. It isn’t. Some part of you still thinks it’s helpful. You need a strategy to override that part of you. You need to do it gradually, compassionately, and strategically or that part of you is going to panic and force you to avoid again.

Strategic thinking starts with what is going well. We’ve been talking about self-compassion in most groups in the last few weeks. Let’s review what we’ve discussed and apply it to your next steps.

Hitting a child who stole a toy is an ineffective strategy because it doesn’t teach the child a new way of acting. An effective strategy would be calming the child down, listening to what he was thinking and feeling when he stole, and then teaching him some alternative ways to communicate his needs.

Similarly, criticizing yourself for avoidance is an ineffective strategy because it undermines the possibility of new learning. If you are noticing that there are areas of your life that where you feel intolerance of uncertainty and you have the urge to avoid, try turning towards that part of yourself with curiosity.

There is nothing certain about life. We are all in constant states of uncertainty. We don’t feel intolerant of that uncertainty in every domain of life. Thus, the uncertain parts of life that give you anxiety and the urge to avoid provide a roadmap to your core fears. Rather than beating yourself up about those fears, seek to understand them so that you can create a strategic plan to overcome them.

As you try turning towards yourself with curiosity, here are some questions to ask yourself and discuss in Community Time and group:

  • In what areas of life do you tolerate (or even like) uncertainty?
  • How do you approach uncertainty in the areas of life that you like it?
  • In what areas of life is uncertainty hard for you to tolerate?
  • What fears make uncertainty in that area of life feel intolerable?
  • In what way is your response to your fears making the uncertainty less tolerable?
  • What are some other options for how you can respond to your fears?