Got Anxiety? Is it better to be safe than sorry?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a three-part series from the Barmanns about the relationship between anxiety and uncertainty. Click here to read part one.
Most people do not like experiencing a sense of uncertainty. Given a choice, they would prefer advanced knowledge of upcoming events, control and predictability — they do not like surprises; even good surprises.
Although uncertainty is considered unpleasant by many, for chronic worriers it is far worse than unpleasant — it’s intolerable! In other words, worriers hate not knowing. If uncertainty were an allergen, those who evidence an anxiety condition would report a huge “emotional break out” when coming into direct contact with situations involving uncertain outcomes.
Worriers have the following beliefs associated with uncertainty:
• Uncertainty is dangerous, and represents a potential threat.
• Uncertainty is uncontrollable.
• Uncertainty will lead to negative emotional states (anxiety, sadness).
• Uncertain events are unfair (e.g., “it puts me at a disadvantage”).
The fact is, we live in a world filled with uncertain outcomes, and a lack of predictability. Watch the evening news, and you will witness uncertainty within the political arena. Will Trump accumulate enough delegates to win the nomination? Will Clinton become the country’s first female president?
For some, political uncertainty may not pose a perceived threat in their everyday lives. However, when uncertainty targets a particular “theme” deemed meaningful to the individual, anxiety will surface.
For example, a person who suffers from Health Anxiety will become anxious when discovering a mole on his or her arm, with no certain explanation concerning its origin. Is it skin cancer, or a harmless blemish? Uncertainty regarding this issue will trigger reassurance-seeking behaviors, all performed for the purpose of obtaining 100% certainty that cancer is not present.
Worry and uncertainty are intimately linked. Uncertainty is perceived by the worrier as threatening, which then leads to a feeling of vulnerability, triggering anxiety. Worrying generates even more uncertainty, which triggers more worrying, thus creating a whirlwind of “what-if” scenarios which appear uncontrollable.
Those who worry believe that worrying will create more certainty, and a feeling of safety (less vulnerability). While in a state of uncertainty, worries seem very real, as opposed to hypothetical in nature, thus propelling us to believe that the act of worrying will prevent bad things from happening.
Unfortunately, proposed solutions initiate thinking about other things that could go wrong, resulting in a long list of additional worries. In essence, one begins to “worry about worrying.” A strategy once thought to be the solution, has now become the problem.
Think of worry as analogous to an insurance policy for the uncertainties of life. Insurance cannot stop bad things from happening — it simply reduces the financial hardships should they occur. However, “what if” the cost (premium) is too high? Is it worth buying the policy?
In a similar manner, worry does not prevent bad outcomes from occurring; it is merely perceived as a way of minimizing loss. However, if the cost (loss of sleep, relationship problems, etc.) is too expensive, does it make sense to buy into the policy (i.e., your relationship with worry)?
Worrying promises to insure us against uncertainty, yet never seems to deliver. “What if” worriers spent less time pursuing insurance against predicted hypothetical negative outcomes (that may never occur), and instead spent more time on insuring what really matters, such as family, friends, and future goals?
THE RULES OF UNCERTAINTY
Uncertainty has a set of rules it wants you to follow in order to help maintain your intolerance level. Do any of these sound familiar? If so, do your best to stop complying:
• Believe you should be 100% sure about everyday life events.
• Never make an important decision when feeling doubtful.
• If feeling uncertain, believe that worrying will lead to certainty.
• When in doubt, predict that bad outcomes will occur.
• If a bad outcome does occur, assume you do not have the ability to cope with it.
People who follow these rules endorse a philosophy that states it is much safer to assume the worst, than to take the risk of assuming that a particular event will turn out just fine.
Think about it. If you spend a good deal of time worrying and imagining the worst case scenario, it begins to feel as if it’s real. Once this sense of reality sets in, the person is convinced they know what the outcome will be, thus eliminating (in the mind of the worrier) the sensation of uncertainty.
Even though the predicted nightmare outcome is awful, it feels safer than the alternative of uncertainty. In short, the worrier lives by the motto, “It is better to be safe than sorry, and I can only be safe, when I am sure” — an illusion that makes uncertainty intolerable.
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.
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