Does dealing with the uncertainties of new circumstances cause you to experience extreme distress? Does navigating life’s myriad choices cause you to crumple rather than flourish? Do you appear to others as organized and in control, whilst inside it’s one big mess? Do you leave nothing to chance; prep for any possible contingency, question and challenge, all the while doing nothing to relieve your distress? Are you suffering from an anxiety disorder…?
But what is certain is that a significant number of people with anxiety disorders – and many others suffer from a low tolerance of uncertainty.
Us humans cling to the idea that we have a good grasp on and understanding of life, that we know what’s next – sometimes even desperately so. Unfortunately for all of us is that we may just have to admit that all that is certain in life is death (and taxes). Having a low tolerance of uncertainty is as if one would be allergic to life’s inherently unpredictable nature. For the biggest part, life is unpredictable to any of us. Some of us are just fine living in the seemingly blissful nature of such ignorance, while others suffer tremendously when they find themselves in unforeseen situations (whether these are evidently or not at all threatening). It was in 1990 that a (high or low) tolerance for uncertainty was first identified as being a distinguishable personality trait, and linked as a predisposition to the development of anxiety disorders. In the same way that having an inflated sense of responsibility may be behind the development of OCD and perfectionism may lead to an eating disorder, a low tolerance of uncertainty is linked to a number of anxiety disorders and non-pathological suffering.
We are all born with a healthy capability to experience fear of the unknown. When a domesticated animal is carried into an unfamiliar room – even without an obvious threat, without a safe space to hide they may react in terror. In much the same ways human infants are equipped to learn and recognize safety signals, most of which revolve around their caregivers. With sufficient time spent in a secure and supportive environment, babies will feel safe when there is no obvious sign of danger presented; the absence of danger has become sufficient to ensure a relative sense of security – albeit no guarantee of safety, seeing how life is ever unpredictable. As young developing human beings then, we have not as such found a way to reduce uncertainty, we have simply cultivated a level of tolerance for this very uncertainty. This comfort level towards living in an unpredictable world (often 1 to 1 linked with parental bonding) allows to further explore and develop our world, take chances and become our best selves. For those of us unfortunate enough to have grown up with neglect, abuse or overall deprivation of safety, any level of uncertainty quickly becomes threatening.
Those of us who have been exposed to unpredictable danger or inconsistent safety, either in early childhood or during a highly stressful or even traumatic event in later life are ever vigilant for threats, real or imagined. People with a low tolerance for uncertainty have difficulty recognizing when they are safe; being told that they are safe yields insufficient solace. Hearing how there is no need to be insecure, because a stranger on the street has no reason to judge us is of no consolation to someone with social anxiety, and reassurance that we are sufficiently prepared for that big public speech tomorrow and we won’t forget our lines rarely calms an anxious person. Unfortunately the old “don’t worry (be happy)” falls on death man’s ears when he or she has a low tolerance for uncertainty. This lack on tolerance may be expressed in a wide range of behaviours. While one may obsess and overprepare for an upcoming event, others may collect every bit of available information solely from a source that they trust, avoiding situations with unpredictable outcomes. Some may avoid or procrastinate, while others may be impulsive and cling to their rash decisions, all to avoid being exposed to the uncertain situation of having too many choices. All of these are referred to as intolerance of uncertainty (IU) behaviours. In lieu of recognised signs for safety one tends to cling to these behaviours to provides us with a “feeling” of safety; a feeling that is often chased without effect because the very nature of these IU safety behaviours remind us of the threats we imagined in the first place.
Social scientist have raised concerns about the unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact, specifically on people with a low tolerance of uncertainty. Therapists have begun to target their patients’ uncertainty intolerance to help them to navigate the pandemic, and as of late the re-entry into society. Results are very positive.*
*Do you find yourself disproportionately impacted by everything the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown at you? Do you have an exceptionally strong dislike for not being in control or able to predict what’s next – without even knowing so?
Have you or your loves-ones suffered greatly throughout the span of the pandemic, or do you struggle to regain your place in daily social life? Do you suffer from anxiety, stress or depression? A therapist is ready to help you. Feel free to ask us anything. We thank you for reaching out, it’s a great first step!
Sasja Breit, clinical psychologist, director.