Does uncertainty cause anxiety?

Does uncertainty cause anxiety? Discover how to embrace not knowing as a fact of life and improve your wellbeing.


uncertainty anxiety

Lately, I’ve had the weird sensation that life has been put on hold. I want to book a trip to New York, but keep putting it off, in the hope that the currency exchange might improve. I want to sort out a legal issue, but have been counselled against doing so right now. ‘There might be a change in the law soon, but there might not,’ said my adviser. I’d like to start a new project, but maybe the time isn’t right, what with the gloomy and capricious economy. In short, currently, my life is paralysed by anxiety and uncertainty. And it turns out that I’m not alone.

Does uncertainty cause anxiety? Our complicated, ever-changing world can certainly cause feelings of anxiety to rise – however, by accepting that uncertainty is a part of life and that it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’, we can positively reframe uncertainty and gladly welcome the plot twists of life, whatever they may be.

Why it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ 

‘Right now, everything is uncertain. It’s like the whole world is just a complex mess,’ says Simon Hague, founder of the coaching group Where’s My Lunch. ‘There are so many conflicting things we have to try and make sense of, both personally and in business. Uncertainty is the only certainty we’ve got right now.’

This is reassuring, but what can we actually do about it? ‘It’s about having a mindset shift. We need to learn to accept that uncertainty is a fact of life, now more than ever before.’ Hague suggests that one frequently overlooked source of daily uncertainty comes from online communication. ‘So many of my clients are struggling with this. They check their email or social media several times a day, and they have no idea what’s awaiting them.’

I’d never considered it before, but this uncertainty is the reason I find checking emails stressful and anxiety-inducing. For one thing, the lines between personal and professional have become utterly blurred. My daily emails could easily contain messages about an important contract, a family birthday or a notification about my new Hoover warranty.

‘It’s very difficult to gauge tone or nuance from an email, too,’ observes Hague. ‘And, in any case, the tone very much depends on the frame of mind the person was in when they wrote it.

‘If someone who is normally friendly and chatty sends a terse message when they’re rushing to catch a train saying “we need to chat”, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. We try to predict the pattern of what someone may be expressing, which doesn’t help. My advice would be to take a step back and accept that a level of “I don’t know” is something you need to get comfortable with.’

How the fried-egg philosophy can ease anxiety from uncertainty

It’s a solution which sounds so simple that, initially, I think it’s hardly worth trying. But, next time I open my inbox, instead of holding my breath while I scan it, I recite the ‘I don’t know’ mantra. The first thing I see is an email from my local council. They never email me. Could it be that my council tax payment has gone astray?

Deep breath. ‘I don’t know,’ I say out loud and, strangely, I instantly feel calmer. After I’ve read the email – something dull about putting out the bins – I adopt the same technique with the rest of my inbox and breathe a sigh of relief.

One way to deal with anxiety caused by uncertainty, suggests Hague, is to think of it like a fried egg. ‘In the middle, you’ve got the delicious yellow yolk. Think of this as the stuff in your life that you can control, while the white part represents what you can’t. If you can’t control it, why do you even need to think about it? Let it go.’

He cites a pertinent example of buying a house. In order to afford it, you need to earn an extra £6,000 a year. ‘You have no idea how to get the money. You start obsessing about how to convince your cash-strapped boss to give you a pay rise, and it creates stress because it’s outside your control. You shouldn’t think that way. Instead, brainstorm about how you can generate that money yourself.’

So, taking a Saturday job in a pub or shop, doing regular eBay and car boot sales and offering a service or skill to family and friends… those are ways of taking action and bringing things under your control.

The whole world seems so uncertain at the moment. It’s okay to take a step back and say ‘I don’t know’.

The 4 different types of uncertainty

Does uncertainty cause anxiety? When it comes to tackling anxiety from uncertainty, it’s helpful to know that, in psychotherapy terms, there are actually four different types of uncertainty. Reenee Singh is a family and systemic psychotherapist, chief executive of the Association of Family Therapy, member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy and one of the directors of The Child and Family Practice.

‘I draw on psychotherapist Barry Mason’s ideas,’ she says. ‘In 1993, before Brexit was even a thing, he wrote a seminal paper called Towards Positions Of Safe Uncertainty. It introduced the idea that there are four different positions we can take.’

They are: unsafe uncertainty (dangerous, unclear, chaotic, random); unsafe certainty (controlling, toxic, negative, critical); safe uncertainty (adaptive, innovative, challenging); and safe certainty (comfort zone, repetitive, complacent).

‘Mason suggests that safe uncertainty is the most helpful one, where there’s a basic foundation of security. Within that, people are willing to be creative, explore new ideas and play with the flux that is part of everyone’s life. He also talks about how uncertainty can either promote paralysis or creativity,’ says Singh. The good news is that there are tools to help you get into the creative mindset.

‘A great way to start is to imagine the opposite state. So, with clients, I ask them to focus on what feels certain in life right now. What are the securities you take for granted? If you’re at the mercy of a job search or house-buying process, for example, I would advocate sticking to a predictable routine that you feel safe with.

‘This can be as simple as exercising at the same time every day; something within your control. Another thing you can try is to embrace the parts of your identity that feel stable, such as friendships or family relationships.’

Embrace your identity during uncertain times

Singh offers me a great exercise to reinforce this idea of stable identity. First, write down a list of 10 things that describe your essential self. I note my mixed-race identity, profession, sense of humour, place of residence, key relationships and love of colour. For the second part, I’m asked to imagine that I’m a refugee. How many of the things on my list would remain unchanged? I’m cheered to observe that quite a few would stay the same.

‘The idea is to identify those central aspects of identity that remain, despite difficult circumstances. Those are the parts of you that you should embrace during times of anxiety from uncertainty,’ advises Singh.

‘For example, if you consider yourself to be a good friend, even if you moved to a new place where you knew no one, you could still be a friend to whoever was around you. And you could still keep the feelings of friendship afloat for those who are absent.’

Accepting what you cannot control

The other upside of doing the exercise is that it helps to clarify what we can and cannot control. In her book Stress Proof (New Harbinger, £12.99), Mithu Storoni explores the impact of uncertainty on the brain, and exactly how much havoc it can cause.

‘Humans have evolved to have mechanisms to keep us the same, even when our environment changes. Pretty much all the time, we don’t know what will happen next. But our brain needs to be able to predict the future, because it needs to bring the environment under control. This is known as homoeostasis. It’s what causes us to sweat when we enter a hot room or shiver when we go to the polar vortex. The body wants us to stay at a constant temperature.’

She observes that it’s the same with our ‘emotional brain’, and that we all have a setpoint that acts as a kind of mental compass. Storoni points out that problems like anxiety arise when uncertainty doesn’t happen in a short burst but is prolonged.

‘The brain changes the way we process information coming from outside, so that stimulus is perceived as being more negative. With this negativity bias, we become hypervigilant to threat. The manifestation is chronic stress.’

Problems like anxiety arise when uncertainty doesn’t happen in a short burst but is prolonged.

How our inability to interpret others causes anxiety

Interestingly, Storoni asserts that one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in our lives today is what she terms ‘psychosocial stress’ – not knowing how to interpret the intentions or actions of other people.

‘Today, we live in an urban jungle where the lions of the past have morphed into our friends, our neighbours and our colleagues. Survival today is about who can navigate in the best possible way to reduce social threat and competitive negativity. Research has shown that these psychosocial threats result in an even bigger stress response than a physical attack. The release of cortisol has been shown to be stronger with psychosocial stress.’

She cites the example of somebody elbowing you out of the way on a packed commuter train; a commonplace occurrence. ‘The brain perceives this as a threat because, subconsciously, the person’s motive is not certain. ‘Did the person do it deliberately? Why me? Who are they anyway?’ As an antidote, she suggests we regulate our minds with as much attention as we lavish on the physical body.

‘We regard the mind as a tool, but then forget that real artisans always sharpen their tools. When our powerful minds become rusty, we tend to simply push harder. If the mind was a knife, we would polish it back to optimum form before putting it under stress again.’

Distract your brain from ‘what ifs’

Ways that we can regulate our minds include ensuring that we get enough sleep, losing ourselves in an engrossing pastime that promotes flow state and, most surprising perhaps, playing a computer game, such as Tetris.

It sounds counterintuitive, but Storoni suggests that the best strategy for dealing with a mind that’s whirring away in ‘if this/then that/but maybe something else’ mode is to immediately engage the mind in a different activity, to distract from this anxiety caused by uncertainty.

‘That’s why Tetris is so great, and scientific studies back this up. You need something that grips your attention. When you’re stressed, you can’t tell your mind what to think, you can only tell it what to do. You want an activity that will stretch the mind enough and also give you the buzz of a reward when you win.’

Testing out the Tetris theory:

To be honest, I am someone who’s never downloaded a game in my life, so this doesn’t inspire me. But, in the interests of research, at the end of a frustrating day, I decide to give it a go. My mind was ruminating on the outcome of a vexing situation. To my amazement, after seven games of Tetris, my whole focus is immersed in the game, not on my problems.

Later, a friend calls to find out how I’m doing. ‘Amazing – I’ve got to level six!’ I reply, much to her bewilderment. But what solutions can we adopt for those scenarios that are uncertain in arenas way beyond our control? The UK’s relationship with Europe, the rise of populism on a global scale and climate change, to name three examples.

‘A key way forward is engaging in dialogue,’ suggests Singh. ‘Some people might be feeling unsafe and anxious about uncertain political issues – which is understandable because they could affect the value of people’s homes and their livelihoods; or their relationships with loved ones living in other countries. I advise focusing on the things that give you comfort instead, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.’

anxiety uncertainty distractions
A great strategy for dealing with a busy mind that is focused on uncertainty is to immediately engage the mind in a different activity

Talk to others about your anxiety and uncertainty

Singh suggests that getting involved in political activity is also beneficial. ‘Even posting one tweet to really share how you feel about the whole thing can help. Or start a blog if you enjoy writing. It gives you the sense of being mindful and helping others around you by communicating. You could also offer help by talking to someone you know who is affected by uncertain events.’

This idea really resonated with me, and I made an effort to speak to a friend from Italy whose future residency in the UK is in question. Not only was this an enlightening conversation, it made me feel a lot more grounded.

Uncertainty isn’t always a bad thing

One thing to bear in mind about uncertainty is that it isn’t always a bad thing. ‘Uncertainty can be positive, but you have to frame it in the right way,’ says Storoni. ‘If everybody’s future was set in stone, we would have no motivation. In fact, studies show that we learn better when we perceive uncertainty. There’s a midline region of the brain, known as the default mode network, which gives you your sense of self.

‘Basically, imagine there’s a little scribe in your brain, sitting at a typewriter – and she is recording the story of your life, using all the information that’s coming in. As with every story, the plot gets riveting if you don really know how a situation is going to turn out, and you can imagine the most wonderful ending! Uncertainty allows you to dream big, to have a wider compass and to see the positive aspects of life.’

This is a great way to reframe uncertainty. The next time I find myself chewing over the same old imponderables of life, I visualise my inner storyteller. What would be a really juicy plot twist for next week? Within a matter of minutes, I’ve gone online and finally booked that flight to New York.

Related: Stress breathing exercises: self-soothing breath technique