Got Anxiety? Chipping away at the mountain of uncertainty
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
In our previous article, we discussed the “rules of uncertainty” and, if followed, how they result in maintaining one’s anxiety.
Let’s take a look at the 2 most common strategies used by those who get anxious when needing to deal with situations involving uncertain outcomes.
If you can identify with either of these strategies, ask yourself; “If I were not bothered by uncertainty, what activities would I spend less time avoiding”?
1. Seeking Reassurance
When worriers encounter uncertainty, anxiety surfaces, and the person begins to feel vulnerable, culminating in a perceived inability to cope with the present situation.
The default response is to seek reassurance from friends and family members with respect to a proposed plan of action for coping with a life event involving uncertainty.
Other forms of reassurance-seeking include chronic checking, mental reviewing for the possibility of having made a mistake (post-mortem worry), conducting countless internet searches related to the uncertain issue, etc.
The major problem with reassurance-seeking is that it will result in obtaining TOO MUCH information, which then increases the chances of acquiring conflicting information, as well as “false positives.”
For example, when undergoing an excessive number of medical tests directed at ruling out a particular diagnosis, the person will ultimately discover that at least one of these test results might suggest the possibility that the feared diagnosis could be present.
As is typically the case, chronic reassurance-seeking results in stronger feelings of uncertainty, which leads to heightened anxiety. We often tell our patients that reassurance-seeking typically has a half-life of around 2 hours!
2. Avoiding Uncertain Situations
When faced with the reality that finding 100% certainty is unobtainable, most worriers will, if possible, avoid any situation which triggers “what if” scenarios associated with uncertain outcomes.
Someone with Social Anxiety, feeling uncertain about how an invitation to a social gathering will turn out, will typically choose to not accept the invitation.
A person with Panic Disorder may avoid air travel, not due to a fear of flying, but instead due to their sense of uncertainty concerning the possibility of having a panic attack during the flight.
Avoidance results in strengthening one’s sensitivity to uncertainty, thus becoming the problem, not the solution.
The most effective strategy for learning to increase one’s tolerance level when faced with events involving uncertain outcomes is to use a technique referred to as “Behavioral Experiments.”
This procedure involves directly challenging and confronting uncertain situations, and the predicted catastrophic outcomes associated with the situation.
In other words, Behavioral Experiments are about finding out something new, by doing something differently. They are designed to help people challenge the rules which serve as the foundation for fueling their worry engine.
This technique is all about teaching someone to “test” their predictions about what they BELIEVE will happen when feeling uncertain, vs. what actually DOES happen if they did NOT engage in reassurance-seeking, avoidance, etc.
It’s all about chipping away at the self-imposed rules (beliefs) a person has been following for years.
Once we challenge these beliefs within the context of a behavioral experiment, we discover our catastrophic predictions never occurred, or at least not to the extent previously forecasted.
This discovery then leads to the development of alternative perceptions regarding uncertainty, such as the need to APPROACH these situations with curiosity, as opposed to anxiety, as well as a new stance regarding one’s ability to effectively cope with uncertainty.
The trick is not to begin an experiment when feeling motivated and confident. Motivation and confidence does not precede action — they follow it.
It’s best to begin using this technique when feeling anxious about all the “what ifs” racing through one’s mind. In doing so, you will begin to replace these anxious feelings with those of curiosity — an attitude which should be associated when conducting any type of experiment.
Do not make the mistake of using your emotions (anxiety) as a yardstick for measuring progress following each experiment. It’s normal to feel anxious when using this technique. In fact, it’s necessary.
Assess your progress by the OUTCOME (what actually happened) of the experiment. Conduct a post-experiment review by comparing the outcome, with your pre-experiment predictions.
Was the outcome catastrophic? Did you underestimate your ability to cope with the situation? Did you manage to tolerate feelings of uncertainty, even if they felt uncomfortable?
Remember, the intention is not to love uncertainty (although this may occur later). Instead, the goals are to:
Become more tolerant at feeling uncertain.
Understand that uncertainty is not synonymous with threat.
Generate curious ‘what ifs’ (“what if I avoided reassurance seeking today?”)
Chip away at uncertainty — one experience at a time.
Approach as much uncertainty as possible — seek it out, want it!
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.