Albert McKeon

Jan 15th 2021

The Fear of Uncertainty Can Be a Genuine Struggle


It’s a well-known fact that humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. For many, fear of uncertainty can lead to psychological stress and a struggle that goes beyond getting rough patches in our lives.

“Most humans generally require, at a minimum, a few basic psychosocial things for a sense of well-being: safety, agency, and a tribe — close, supportive relationships,” said K.C. Kalmbach, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A & M University-San Antonio who is a doctor of clinical psychology. “These components are related to two essential conditions: predictability and controllability. If you want to destabilize someone, mess with those.”

Making Sense of the Unknown

Many people enjoy the unknown. They are often risk takers and enjoy climbing new rockfaces or tackling new challenges at work. But almost everyone has a limit to uncertainty; it just depends on what those limits are. The majority of humans prefer some structure to everyday life, even if they choose to flirt with some risk during the day.

“Human beings like the world to be just, orderly and predictable, so we know how to behave,” said Gail Sahar, a professor of psychology at Wheaton College and who has a doctorate in the field. “It is quite anxiety-provoking to be uncertain because the right course of action is unclear. It makes us feel insecure and unsafe.”

Studies of human cognition look at how people constantly try to understand why things happen the way they do in an attempt to prevent “bad things” from happening in the future, Sahar said. It is probably a long-held survival instinct that has evolved over time — a search for comfort in certainty because humans know how to behave when outcomes seem certain, she said.

Measuring Uncertainty is a Start

Uncertainty can become a problem when people frame it as negative and dangerous, Kalmbach said. “Most of us do that. It’s automatic,” she said. “But we all respond differently to uncertainty; in other words, we have different levels of uncertainty and tolerance. Those who have a high degree of intolerance for uncertainty, or IU, are, in general, more prone to anxiety and related mental disorders.”

With uncertainty, people seek more information, more certainty, and if they don’t get it, many become anxious — some more than others. There’s a way to measure this psychological stress: the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS). IUS, as Kalmbach explains, has a four-factor structure that illustrates how uncertainty become stressful, leads to an inability to act, triggers negativity and engenders a sense that it’s all unfair.

An abridged version of the scale, called IUS-12, allows medical professionals to sometimes more quickly determine how people, especially those with obsessive compulsion disorders, experience the stresses of uncertainty.

Several Ways to Diminish Fear

Some cultures treat uncertainty and change as inevitable and not as a negative and, thus, do better than other cultures that have little to no intolerance for it, Kalmbach said. Think of Buddhist monks, she said. There are other ways, though, to tamper with IU.

“If we think of uncertainty and our tolerance as a muscle, we can flex it, exercise it, strengthen it,” Kalmbach said. “We can actually increase tolerance for uncertainty by challenging ourselves, beginning with simple tasks, like turning off and putting away mobile devices or reducing our amount of media consumption.”

The executive function of cognitive flexibility can also diminish the fear of uncertainty, Kalmbach said. She added, “It’s an ability to adapt flexibly and effectively to an ever-changing environment,” which includes the environment of our planet, sociopolitical unrest, loss of work or social support and health, both individual and public.

“It involves being able to flexibly weigh and consider different strategies and to consider a range of ideas or response options without losing perspective,” she said. “In simple terms, it is your ability to effectively ‘roll with it’ and ‘deal with it,’ combined with your ability to ‘bounce back.'”

Finding Solace

Despite the uncertainty of day-to-day life and its many certain difficulties, Wheaton College’s Sahar sees many people developing strategies.

“The best coping mechanisms are ones aimed at the present, rather than the future, which is unpredictable, and those that are under our control,” Sahar said. “I can ask, ‘What can I do right now to make things a little better?'”

Pursuing hobbies such as baking, gardening and painting can be helpful, she said. “We might learn to appreciate some of the small things we did not think about before.”