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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 1

How to Cope with Uncomfortable Uncertainty

A need to know is linked with anxiety
Close fist to chin.
Close fist to chin.



GHISLAIN AND MARIE DAVID DE LOSSY Getty Images (profile); SOURCE: “FEARS OF COMPASSION AND HAPPINESS IN RELATION TO ALEXITHYMIA, MINDFULNESS, AND SELF-CRITICISM,” BY P. GILBERT ET AL., IN PSYCHOLOGY AND PSYCHOTHERAPY, VOL. 85, NO. 4; DECEMBER 2012 (questionnaire)

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Joy is not the only experience that people try to avoid, to their detriment. Many people cannot tolerate the feeling of uncertainty, and according to mounting evidence, this fear affects mood and health. Intolerance of uncertainty is linked with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, researchers confirmed in a paper in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology; their results also revealed a strong link to panic disorder.

People with this fear try to feel more certain with strategies such as excessive checking, planning and reassurance seeking, worry and rumination, and avoidance of unfamiliar situations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, intolerance of uncertainty has been found to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding—although many more people experience subtle symptoms that disrupt quality of life without meeting the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.

A combination of therapeutic strategies can help people whose fear of uncertainty is holding them back. One variety of cognitive-behavior therapy, a well-researched method of psychotherapy, targets beliefs about the nature of uncertainty and lack of control, says study co-author James F. Boswell, a research psychologist at Boston University. In a session, “we might challenge assumptions that uncertainty is bad, avoidable, and inevitably leads to negative outcomes,” he suggests. Gradually increasing exposure to uncertainty—such as by eating at a new restaurant without looking up the menu online first—can also help patients learn to manage the distress. Usually the expectation that uncertainty will lead to negative outcomes is proved to be false. “The ultimate goal is learning to experience uncertainty differently,” Boswell says.

This article was originally published with the title "When Uncertainty Hurts."

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