Improving Your Tolerance Of Uncertainty To Thrive In Uncertain Times

This post was originally published in Forbes Magazine on November 16, 2020. You can read the post on Forbes website here. Laura Maloney is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council.

Recently, I spoke with a friend and colleague about the state of limbo we all seem to be living in during the pandemic and the recent presidential election. We agreed that waiting for answers feels like complete agony.

As humans, we are hardwired to crave order and certainty. Our brains have structurally and chemically evolved to perceive uncertainty as a threat to our physical and emotional wellbeing. Therefore, both consciously and unconsciously, we do a lot in our daily lives to reduce ambiguity.

Besides disrupting our routines in such fundamental and profound ways, Covid-19 has been so challenging because we don’t have a clear sense of where the finish line may be. Even with the recent announcement of a promising vaccine, so much uncertainty remains.

Underlying our hope for a future where a vaccine restores our sense of normalcy is our desire to return to the life we were living before the pandemic. The yearning to be in the past and the future instead of the present can leave us feeling quite literally torn apart.

Oxford neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay, under whom I trained, describes the worry that stems from uncertainty and anxiety as a sort of “mental rehearsal.” The more you repeat a worried thought, the more likely you are to reinforce that thought and develop habits around it – and the better your brain gets at projecting the worst outcome.

Our default methods for mitigating this anxiety – seeking reassurance and becoming hypervigilant (consider how often you check the news) – may alleviate the agony of unknowing in the short term, but these thoughts and behaviors don’t actually get us anywhere – and they certainly don’t help us get more comfortable with living in an uncertain world.

However, just as our brains can be trained to worry and catastrophize, they can also be trained to not only tolerate but embrace and even flourish amid uncertainty. Here are several strategies I’ve found to be effective for myself and those with whom I work.

Assess your intolerance of uncertainty.

Taking a short assessment like the abbreviated Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale can help you gain clarity about how you handle uncertainty. Although there is no formal scoring system, seeing how you respond to questions about uncertainty with answers ranging from “Not at all characteristic of me” to “Entirely characteristic of me” will give you a good gut reaction about your natural tendency.

Dance with the unknown.

While we can never know all of the answers and potential outcomes, we can get better at dancing with the unknown and living more comfortably in a state of unknowing. So many of us search for outside direction when we’re dealing with uncertainty, but in the absence of outside direction, we can chart our own path by turning inward.

I love spontaneous dancing as a physical exercise for dealing with uncertainty, because fluid, intuitive movement is all about letting things be in flux – not searching for or anticipating the next movement, but just letting it happen. At the same time, as Dr. McKay explains, dancing is a way of signaling to your brain that you retain agency; even when life feels out of control, you have the choice to literally “shake it off.”

Movement is a great way to relieve pent-up energy. Dancing, for example, is often a joyful expression, but it doesn’t have to be. Any excess emotion – anger, frustration, fear, grief – can be expended through movement. This kind of release can help shift our focus from seeking reassurance in facts (which may remain unavailable) to finding reassurance in the feeling of wholeness within ourselves.

Practice acceptance.   

Our constant desire to “fix” or “solve” our way through uncertainty can sometimes make things worse. We might deepen rifts or simply force things when the timing isn’t right. Instead of trying to force change, practicing acceptance means acknowledging that time is often a vital ingredient in transformation.

Many people worry that practicing acceptance means resignation. But it’s possible to practice acceptance while simultaneously moving toward change. You might say to yourself, “Things will shift over time but I can still find moments of happiness in the meantime.” Practicing acceptance means trusting yourself and knowing you have faced challenges in the past. The fact that you are here today means that you prevailed through the worst thing that has ever happened to you.

Broaden your horizon. 

We know that the feel-good neurochemical oxytocin is released when we socialize with friends, colleagues and pets. When we’re stuck in our own heads with stress and anxiety, simply grabbing a larger perspective by jumping on Zoom with friends (or petting our furry companions) can help us break from our own anxious narratives.

There are many ways of creating a larger vista without even leaving our homes. We can surf the world from our living rooms, visiting exotic lands and seeing creatures we didn’t know existed by watching remarkable documentaries such as Planet Earth. Not only can virtual exploring grow our knowledge and experience while we’re waiting for the world to normalize; the more possibilities we see in the world at large, the more comfortable we get with the number of unknown possibilities in our own lives.

Set small goals.

Setting small, achievable goals reminds us to celebrate everyday happenings, while engendering hope and individual agency. Because anticipation releases dopamine, working towards a goal is often just as enjoyable as achieving it.

Finally, it’s important to set goals that are intrinsically motivated. Not only has intrinsic motivation been shown to be more effective than extrinsic motivation, it’s also always accessible. If you, for example, are a runner who’s bummed that the Boston Marathon was cancelled, running your own marathon on your own course and rewarding yourself with a prize of your choosing is a way to acknowledge yourself without external validation – which is ultimately more fleeting and always out of our control.