What is the intolerance of uncertainty?

What does an intolerance of uncertainty look like?

Intolerance of uncertainty is a concept that affects many people with anxiety. Uncertainty is a common thing in life, as we cannot see into the future. For example, we can be uncertain of where we will be living in five years’ time, or even what we have for dinner today. They say that the only things we can be certain of is death and taxes! However, people with anxiety often crave certainty as it feels more comfortable than uncertainty.

Uncertainty is like an allergy. An allergy occurs when a small particle of an allergen (e.g. cat hair) creates a reaction in the person (e.g. eyes itching). Similarly, a small bit of uncertainty (e.g. not knowing where to go for dinner) can create a big reaction in someone’s anxiety (e.g. heart racing, unable to be in the present moment, worrying lots).

What behaviour types are related to intolerance of uncertainty?

People can utilise a range of behaviour types to try to seek certainty. Although it may feel helpful initially, it can be time-consuming or draining in the long term. These include:

  • Making excessive to-do lists or having excessively detailed diaries/planners to leave less room for uncertainty.
  • Keeping busy so not to have time to think about uncertain things
  • Procrastination to delay feeling uncertain about things, e.g. delay making decisions.
  • Avoidance – avoiding things that make you feel uncertain, e.g. deciding where to go for dinner
  • Double-checking, e.g. locks on doors for safety, or checking family members are safe and well
  • Difficulty in delegating to others as you can’t be certain they’ll do it right

How to overcome this intolerance of uncertainty

So to manage this, do we try to increase certainty, or increase our tolerance of uncertainty?

You might realise already that you cannot increase certainty as much as you might try. It’s undoubtedly harder, but more fruitful, to increase our tolerance of uncertainty instead.

How do we do this? First, we start by making a list of the small steps we can take to reducing the above behaviours and putting these into a hierarchy of easiest to hardest. You can then practice each step to become more comfortable with sitting with uncertainty.

For example, if you’re someone who struggles to delegate, you might start by delegating a very small and unimportant task to someone you trust and check that it’s been done after. As the next step, you might delegate the same task but not double check it’s completed. After that, you might delegate a bigger task to them, without double checking. Each step should be a little harder. Sometimes you might need to repeat a step a few times before progressing to a more difficult step.

How can Brighter Life help?

We suggest having a go with the above steps on your own first. However, if self-help is not enough, we are here to help, and CBT would be the model we’d suggest for this kind of difficulty. You can read about CBT here. Please do not hesitate to contact us on 0118 40 50 108, or by emailing info@brighterlifetherapy.co.uk.

You can also follow us on our Instagram and Facebook for more information about intolerance of uncertainty and other mental health discussions.

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