How to accept uncertainty

Seven Ways to Cope with Uncertainty

Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty. 

Research shows that job uncertainty, for example, tends to take a more significant toll on our health than actually losing our job. Similarly, research participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock felt far more anxious and agitated than participants who believed they were definitely going to receive the shock.

It is no surprise, then, that there are entire industries devoted to filling in the blanks of our futures. See, for example, the popularity of astrology apps, or the prestige of management consultancies dedicated to strategic planning. Fundamentalist religions counter anxiety by providing us with unambiguous rules and absolute truths. Conspiracy theories provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena.

Advertisement X

Meet the Greater Good Toolkit

From the GGSC to your bookshelf: 30 science-backed tools for well-being.

But sometimes—maybe always—it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty. Though evolution might have rigged our brains to resist uncertainty, we can never really know what the future will bring. And in improbable situations like the pandemic, which has massively disrupted our routines and utterly destroyed our best-laid plans, we need to learn to live with ambiguity. “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is,” wrote mathematician John Allen Paulos. “Knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

So how can we best cope when everything feels so out of control? Here are seven surprising strategies.

1. Don’t resist

There’s no doubt: We are living through challenging times. But resisting this current reality won’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better. Ironically, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty by amplifying the challenging emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the aphorism that what we resist persists. 

There’s an alternative. Instead of resisting, we can practice acceptance. Research by Kristin Neff and her colleagues has shown that acceptance—particularly self-acceptance—is a counterintuitive secret to happiness. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is and moving forward from there.

Because acceptance allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment, it frees us up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed (or made ineffective) by uncertainty, fear, or argument. To practice acceptance, we surrender our resistance to a problematic situation, and also to our emotions about the situation

For example, you might find your marriage to be particularly challenging right now. Instead of criticizing or blaming your spouse—two tactics of resistance—you could calmly accept your marriage for the time being.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t feel frustrated anymore, or disappointed, or saddened by the state of things. A big part of acceptance is accepting how we feel about difficult circumstances (and difficult people) in our lives. But allowing our challenging marriage to be as it is right now—and acknowledging our feelings about it—puts us in a better position to move forward.

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Accepting a situation doesn’t mean that it will never get better. We don’t accept that things will stay the same forever; we only accept whatever is actually happening at the moment. We can work to make our marriage happier, while at the same time allowing the reality that right now, the relationship or the situation is complicated. Maybe it will get better, maybe it won’t. Practicing acceptance in the face of difficulty is hard, and it’s also the most effective way to move forward.

2. Invest in yourself

The best resource that you have right now for making a contribution to the world is YOU. When that resource is depleted, your most valuable asset is damaged. In other words: When we underinvest in our bodies, minds, or spirits, we destroy our most essential tools for leading our best lives.

We humans don’t do well when we defer maintenance on ourselves. We need to sustain the relationships that bring us connection and meaning. We must get enough sleep and rest when we are tired. We need to spend time having fun and playing, just for the joy of it.

Don’t be confused: Self-care is not selfish. Selfishness is an anxious focus on the self. Selfish people tend to refer back to themselves a lot by using words like I, me, and mine. They pursue extrinsic goals, such as preserving their youthful beauty or cultivating an image of themselves on social media. They often hunger for more money, power, and approval from others, and they are often willing to pursue these things at the expense of other people or at the expense of their own integrity. That sort of self-focus is linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and health problems such as heart disease.

So, I’m definitely not recommending selfishness. I’m suggesting self-care and personal growth.

3. Find

healthy comfort items

One of the most important ways we can invest in ourselves is to comfort ourselves in healthy ways.

If we are to stay flexible, we need to feel safe and secure. When we feel uncertain or insecure, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. This dopamine rush encourages us to seek rewards, making temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item…like an extra glass of wine instead of a reasonable bedtime. Or the entire pan of brownies. Or an extra little something in your Amazon cart.

But instead of turning to social media, junk food, or booze to soothe our rattled nerves, we do better when we preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways.

Make a list of healthy ways to comfort yourself. Can you mask up and go for a hike with a neighbor? Schedule a call with a friend? Reflect on what you are grateful for? Let yourself take a little nap? Perhaps you could seek out a hug or watch a funny YouTube video.

Those things may seem small—or even luxurious—but they enable us to be the people that we want to be.

4. Don’t believe everything you think

Perhaps the most essential stress-reduction tactic that anyone has ever taught me is not to believe everything I think. In uncertain times, it’s particularly important not to believe thoughts that argue for the worst-case scenario.

It can be helpful for us to consider worst-case scenarios so that we can weigh risks and actively prevent disaster. But when we believe these stressful thoughts, we tend to react emotionally as though the worst case is already happening in real life, rather than just in our heads. We grieve for things that we haven’t actually lost, and react to events that are not actually happening. This makes us feel threatened, afraid, and unsafe when we are simply alone with our thoughts.

Our negativity bias can also set us up for failure. Expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect the worst, we often feel too afraid or close-minded to seize opportunities or respond to challenges with creativity and grit.

Instead of buying into every stressful thought, we can actively imagine the best possible scenario. We can find silver linings to replace ruminations. This counters our natural tendency to overestimate risks and negative consequences.

5. Pay attention

The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence. Instead of imagining a scary and unknown future, we can bring our attention to our breath. From there, we can check in with ourselves. Every time we wash our hands, for example, we could ask ourselves: How are you doing right now?

Notice what emotions you are feeling, and where in your body you feel those emotions. Bring curiosity and acceptance to your experience (see #1).

Even when it feels like everything is out of our control, we can still control what we pay attention to. We can turn off our alerts to keep the news or social media from hijacking our awareness. We can drop our ruminations and negative fantasies by attending to what’s actually happening in our inner world, right now, here in the present.

Attending to what is happening within us at any given moment keeps a crappy external reality from determining our inner truth. It allows us to cultivate calm, open-mindedness, and non-reactivity.

6. Stop looking for someone to rescue you

When we act as though we are powerless, we get trapped in narratives that leave us feeling angry, helpless, and trapped. And we start hoping other people will save us from our misery.

Although it can feel good when others dote on us, most rescuers don’t really help. Our friends might want to save us—because helping others makes people feel good—and their intentions may be noble. But rescuers tend to be better enablers than saviors. If we stay stuck, they get to keep their role as our hero, or they get to distract themselves from their own problems.

Rescuers tend to give us permission to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives. On the other hand, emotionally supportive friends (or therapists) see us as capable of solving our own problems. They ask questions that help us focus on what we do want instead of what we don’t.

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is”

―John Allen Paulos, mathematician

In short: To best cope with uncertainty, we need to stop complaining. When we drop our fixation on the problem, we can focus on the outcomes we desire. How can we make the best of this mess? What can we gain in this situation? 

When we take responsibility for our lives, we trade the false power of victimhood for the real power that comes from creating the life we want.

7. Find meaning in the chaos

Social psychologists define meaning, as it applies to our lives, as “an intellectual and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value, and impact.” We humans are best motivated by our significance to other people. We’ll work harder and longer and better—and feel happier about the work we are doing—when we know that someone else is benefiting from our efforts.

For example, teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

When we see something that needs improvement, our next step is to recognize what we personally can do to be a part of the solution. What skills and talents (or even just interests) can we bring to the issue? What really matters to us, and how can we be of service?

Meaning and purpose are wellsprings of hope. When the world feels scary or uncertain, knowing what meaning we have for others and feeling a sense of purpose can ground us better than anything else.

So, don’t just wait for this ordeal to be over. Don’t be resigned to your misery while we wait for a vaccine. What have you always wanted to do? What outcome are you hoping for? How can you make a real life in this? Live that life.

Tool 7: Befriend Uncertainty - Anxiety Canada

Uncertainty (not being 100% sure about something) is a big trigger for many people. In the face of uncertainty, we often have thoughts like:

  • I can’t stand not being absolutely sure.
  • I should always look ahead to avoid surprises.
  • I don’t want to decide in case it’s not the right decision.

We also often do things to try to gain more certainty. We worry, for example, in an effort to figure out all the possible ways things could go wrong so we can be more certain of the outcome. But we know it doesn’t work. We still feel anxious because there is no way of knowing exactly how things are going to turn out. There are no guarantees.

We also try to seek more certainty through actions like repeatedly checking things or constantly seeking reassurance from others. For example:

  • Are you sure we made the right decision on the car seat and it is the best out there?
  • Are you sure you still find me attractive?

The problem is almost everything in life is uncertain because no one can predict the future.

We can make our lives a lot more enjoyable if we can “befriend” uncertainty, rather than spending more time and energy trying to fight against the inevitable.

So how do you get comfortable with uncertainty? Accepting it and building tolerance for it.

Accepting uncertainty

Demanding certainty can be a frustrating experience because we can NEVER do enough to be 100% certain. We need to make peace with the fact that uncertainty is part of life. The strategy of R.O.L.Ling with anxious thoughts could also help you to let go of your need for certainty and accept uncertainty as an unavoidable part of life.

How do we R.O.L.L with uncertainty? Let’s look at an example.

Recognize: “I notice how much I hate not being absolutely certain that the baby is healthy.”

Observe: “It’s interesting to notice my need for certainty, a guarantee. This need is making me anxious and agitated. I feel pressure in my chest and I notice a headache coming on. I have the urge to do anything I can to fulfill my need to know so I can stop the discomfort. I’m just going to observe and sit with these feelings for a while …”

Let go: “My need for certainty cannot be satisfied no matter what I do. Being uncertain does not mean things will turn out badly. Uncertainty is part of life and I will accept it. I will let my need for certainty go.” (Visualize your need for certainty floating past you like clouds in the sky.)

Learning to accept uncertainty will not make our need for certainty disappear, but it will save us time and energy when we let go of trying to control the uncontrollable.

Building tolerance

In addition to accepting uncertainty, another helpful strategy is to practice building your tolerance and comfort level with uncertainty. This means intentionally facing your fear of not knowing, over and over, until it feels less distressing.

Check out Increase Your Tolerance for Uncertainty for more tips.

5 tips to accept the uncertainty of life

Irina Postnikova

still worried about the unknown

Author profile

Uncertainty is one of the most uncomfortable states for a person.

During crises, it is felt especially acutely. But in fact, we encounter it all the time. “Life is surfing in a world of uncertainty,” says cognitive philosophy professor Andy Clark. There is even a hypothesis that constant adaptation to uncertainty is the basis of all cognitive, and possibly emotional human activity. Therefore, it is important to increase resistance to it. This will relieve unnecessary worries, allow you to act rationally in difficult situations. And in general, it will help you become happier. nine0003

Why do we dislike uncertainty so much? For most of history, humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Each of them had a certain role. This made life very predictable—consisting of repetitive events and tasks. The brain has learned to recognize patterns and form habits so that it can solve as many tasks as possible on autopilot. Therefore, the brain loves a measured, structured life and a sense of control so much. nine0003

But in case of uncertainty, the brain does not have ready-made scenarios. He cannot rely on past experience to identify patterns, build a forecast and choose the right behavior model.


“It looks like the worst is ahead. This is not true". Psychologist - about the collapse of plans

Therefore, the brain perceives uncertainty as a danger and begins to panic. This causes a stress reaction, which negatively affects not only physical, but also mental well-being. Studies show that intense and persistent stress due to uncertainty can increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. Cognitive abilities also deteriorate: it becomes more difficult to recall and retain important information in memory. And that means making decisions, planning and acting. nine0003

Here are five tips to avoid this and increase your tolerance for uncertainty.

Tip 1

Focus on what you can control

Even in the most difficult situations, many things remain in your control. You continue to manage your free time, make decisions about what to eat for lunch. Psychologists advise focusing on this in moments of instability in order to return the brain to a sense of control and begin to adapt to new conditions. nine0003

The British Department of Health advises this algorithm:

  1. Determine your short-term needs: get out of bed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast.
  2. Then try to break your day down into many of these achievable tasks and do them one after the other in turn.
  3. If, due to severe stress caused by fear of the future, it is not easy for you to cope even with everyday activities, start with the simplest ones. As you complete them, your self-confidence will grow. And you will feel the ground under your feet. nine0036


Influencing What You Can Influence: 5 Ways to Stay Calm in Tough Times

Tip 2

Catch safety signals

These are any elements of your usual life that are strongly associated with a time when you felt calm and secure. With their help, you can deceive the brain: make it believe that even now you are completely safe. This will interrupt the stress reaction, restore a sense of normality and stability for a while, and help to take a breath. nine0003

Newcastle University professor Mark Friston says the best safety signals are those that remind you of childhood:

  1. Think of the most delicious meals Grandma cooked. And try to reproduce them.
  2. Reread your favorite children's book.
  3. Watch a couple of episodes of the cartoon series that you loved when you were a kid. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sailor Moon can still be fun.
  4. Play your favorite childhood computer games. nine0036


How to survive hard times stoically: 6 tricks

Tip 3

Give up time travel

That's what UCLA psychology professor Keith Sweeney calls endless ruminations about the past and future. They are useless from a practical point of view: the past cannot be changed, what will happen in the future, no one knows. But such thoughts provoke anxiety and can give impetus to the development of depression.

Sweeney believes that the best antidote to thinking about the past is a focus on what is happening here and now. According to research, it helps to worry less about uncertainty and reduce stress levels.

An easy way to switch to the present is to do something very exciting. Revisit the first season of your favorite TV show, replant flowers, or play computer games for hours. It is important to choose an activity that brings not only positive emotions, but also completely absorbs. So it will be easier to distract the brain from negative thoughts and persuade it to give a break to the nervous system. nine0003

Tip 4

Look for reasons for optimism

Advice, at first glance, banal. But research shows that optimism does help us through times of uncertainty. In 2012, a group of scientists from the University of California monitored the psychological state of 50 law students for four months while waiting for the results of the bar exam. Those who remained optimistic from the start had lower levels of anxiety during the entire waiting period.

But in difficult times it is not easy to find a reason for optimism. Sometimes, in such conditions, small personal pleasures seem inadmissible. This is a harmful attitude, says psychotherapist Laurie Gottlieb. A constant stream of disturbing news and worries about them undermine the nervous system. If you do not give her rest, a breakdown may occur.


How to live in uncertainty: 8 tips from a psychologist

Gottlieb advises retuning to optimism with the help of a technique he calls "But I." It consists in complementing each disturbing thought with a positive one. For example, like this: "I have no idea what will happen in the future, but I know that on Friday evening we meet with friends and we will have fun together." This allows, despite the general negative background, to receive a portion of positive emotions. nine0003

How this technique works in practice, Gottlieb explains with the example of his client. She was being treated for cancer, which caused her to constantly experience bouts of anxiety about her future. But at some point, the patient realized that in the intervals between attacks she could easily enjoy life: watch movies with her husband, fool around with children and sing in the shower. This reduced her level of anxiety and made her more resilient to uncertainty.

Other ways to maintain a positive attitude:

  1. Inventory of achievements. Make a list of what you have accomplished in the last 12 months. Surely there will be several pleasant and unexpected points in it. You will remember that you learned how to make a real omelet, began to spend more time with children, finished reading a difficult book. This exercise will not only improve your mood, but also remind your brain that in the past you coped well with life, despite the troubles and surprises. So, there are good chances that you will overcome this crisis as well. nine0036
  2. Practicing gratitude. Once a week, make a list of things you are truly grateful for. If nothing global comes to mind, it's not scary. Memories of pleasant little things will also have a positive effect. According to a study by psychologists at the University of California, this exercise, if done regularly, will increase your level of optimism and overall resilience to stress.

10 easy ways to be happier

Tip 5

Get used to microdoses of uncertainty

Resistance to uncertainty is a skill. It is quite possible to develop it in oneself, psychologists believe. The main thing to do is to recognize that uncertainty is an integral part of life.

We encounter it many times during the day. And usually we don’t even notice it, because we do our best to get rid of the discomfort that it causes. When we do not know how to cope with a task, we search for information on the Internet or procrastinate. To decide whether or not to take an umbrella, we check the weather forecast in the application. nine0003

These strategies help you avoid stress in the moment due to uncertainty. But if you sometimes refuse them, you can increase the ability to resist it. “Uncertainty tolerance is like a muscle. If it is not used, it becomes weaker,” says Elena Ketsmanovich, a professor at Georgetown University. She advises to act contrary to instinct: not to avoid uncertainty, but to gradually allow it into your life.


How to increase your resistance to stress: 5 tips

Start small and build up gradually:

  1. The next time you get lost in an unfamiliar place, try not to ask the people around you for directions or look into the application with maps - but to get out on your own.
  2. When you go to a concert of an unfamiliar band, do not look for information about it on the Internet and do not listen to its albums. If you are going to a restaurant, do not google the menu in advance.
  3. If a friend is late for a meeting, do not bombard him with angry messages asking when he will be. And try to calmly wait for him. nine0036

In such situations, you willy-nilly be forced to stay in uncertainty for a while. This will help in practice to make sure that in reality there is nothing wrong with it. As a result, the psychological discomfort that causes uncertainty will decrease.

A similar method has been successfully used in the treatment of anxiety disorders, one of the symptoms of which is uncertainty intolerance. In the therapeutic version, it looks a little different.


5 tips for coping with anxiety in difficult times

First, the patient is asked to remember in which everyday situations he experiences anxiety due to uncertainty. Then - to formulate what exactly he is afraid of. For example, like this: when I go to a new restaurant, I always look at the menu in advance, because I'm afraid that I won't like their food.

After that, the patient should independently conduct a behavioral experiment - go to a restaurant without prior preparation. And if you really don’t like the food, he must honestly answer the question of whether it is as terrible as he thought. nine0003

The purpose of the exercise is to show the person that most situations in which there is an element of uncertainty do not end in disaster. Being aware of this helps reduce stress levels and the severity of an anxiety disorder.

How to live and work when there is uncertainty around? - It's clear on

It's hard for all of us to focus on work now, because our thoughts are in a completely different place. The news we encounter can evoke many strong emotions. Feelings of anxiety, fear, uncertainty and helplessness are a natural reaction of our psyche to what is happening around. Yasno psychotherapist Marina Volkova explains how to find a constructive outlet for emotions. nine0147


Remember that we cannot "feel wrong" or "forbid ourselves to think so", but we can control our words and actions. Unlike emotions, our behavior is in our hands. Just "keeping your emotions in" is unproductive. They are worth " canalize ": express outwardly in a way that is safe for yourself and others.

How to do it?

1. Intense experiences can be associated with aggression. It is important to remember its true source - and not win back on people who are in close proximity. We are all united by a common pain that we express and live in different ways - and we can choose to “shift” the aggressive impulse, redirect it in another direction, even if it seems that the person next to us “deserves” this release. For example, physically - to direct a blow to a pillow instead of a person. And emotionally - sublimate, throw out emotions on paper, cry them out or shout alone with yourself. nine0003

2. Redirect your experiences to some other object or type of activity (sublimation) - this is what is in your hands, regardless of the state and actions of other people. No matter how good you are at art, it is important that the experience becomes the "fuel" for something creative and takes on its external form. Exercising, cleaning the house, or postponed tasks that you concentrate on will also work for this.

3. Remember that we are all people who are hurt and difficult. Remaining human and smoothing out the polar, black-and-white view of the situation, dividing into “strangers” and “ours” is a deep and demanding spiritual work that each of us can do on our part. nine0003

4. Find someone who can handle your emotions, "contain" them, and basically act as a parent. He will endure and accept them and at the same time will not collapse, it will be safe next to him, he will explain what is happening to you, sympathize, give comfort and support.

(However, it is important to assess whether the person we are visiting is ready for this. If the person we want to talk to is emotionally upset, this will not help, since the emotions of each of you will “overlap” each other - it will work out the effect of emotional contagion - and both will only get worse). nine0003

What to do if there is no strength to work?

Now many people think that any activity has lost its meaning. But here it is important to remember why we did it before, what motivated us, what guided us when we chose to move, and not freeze in place. It is normal to doubt whether this is now necessary; but the question is how do we deal with these doubts - let them prevail or take, however small, but a step forward - and observe the results. nine0003

Take a closer look at your activities: most likely, it is useful not only to you, but also to someone else. Maybe you help those who are especially vulnerable right now, or thanks to you some common cause is kept, or your creativity inspires someone not to give up.

What if you are a manager?

During the period of change, the emotional burden on managers increases. In conditions of danger, any higher object begins to be perceived as a “parental figure”, this is how the psyche works. nine0003

Anxiety leads to regression: it becomes more difficult for both employees and the manager to think maturely and rationally. People begin to shift responsibility onto each other, demand increased attention from superiors. Both employees and managers experience vulnerability, fear of ignorance, misunderstanding, incompetence. As a result, instead of working together to find solutions, people are looking for ways to interact less with each other.

In a situation of uncertainty, the so-called "reflexive ability" becomes an important quality of a leader. It allows you to accept in yourself and in others ignorance, emotional tension, allow uncertainty, contain fear and anxiety before acting. This helps you stay effective in the face of change. nine0003

A leader can help subordinates contain emotions. Give yourself time to simply learn to handle the emotional stress without requiring decisions. Try to take complexity and incomprehensibility for granted (as with a small child who is naughty for some reason). All this time it is important to continue to discuss what is happening, to speak openly about doubts and fears. It would be nice if every employee felt involved in the processes.

A good support option is to connect corporate psychotherapy. Professional psychologists can contain the emotions of employees without being emotionally destroyed. In particular, group corporate therapy is now relevant, as many are worried about the same thing: fear for the future, uncertainty, impotence, stress, inability to control emotions. nine0003

It is unrealistic to restore the team's performance as if nothing is happening, you will have to make a temporary allowance. Condescendingly treat subordinates, understand that now is a difficult time and everyone is overloaded and slow down. The same applies to yourself - in times of crisis, you should not expect productivity from yourself at the usual level. What works is what you can rely on - for example, write instructions down to the simplest and smallest operations that are usually performed automatically, a detailed plan for the day. nine0003

What if you are alone right now?

Try to find a support group: people who are safe to be around. Today's situation has hit everyone in one way or another; this is not a local problem when you can turn to someone who is stronger than you at the moment for help. Right now we may not have enough resources to support each other; they may not be found even for themselves. This is also normal - remember how we were taught to put on an oxygen mask on an airplane. nine0003

What can be done? Become that supportive person for yourself. Say to yourself those words that you want to hear from another. Feel sorry for yourself, hug and regret. If this is not enough, if despair sets in, seek help from a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Do not forget about minimal physical activity, food and sleep, pay attention to breathing.

We cannot influence the global situation, but each of us "cultivates" that piece of reality in which he lives and is himself. Pay attention to everyday, routine things - this gives life consistency and stability, which are all the more important, the more that which is beyond our direct influence seems disturbing, chaotic, uncertain.

Learn more