Living with Uncertainty: How to Cope During Ambiguous Times

fingers pulling out jenga block“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” —Gilda Radner

You’ve shown up for work only to be told that your position has been eliminated, and now you find yourself jobless and afraid. You find out that your spouse has been having an affair, and suddenly you are in a panic about what the future holds and how your life will change. You have a health condition and begin to live in a space where nothing seems certain. In moments like these, anxiety takes up residence in our minds: What will the future look like? Can I handle what is coming down the road? Will I be OK?

We’ve all been there at one time of another: stuck in uncertainty. It’s a scary place to be, and can leave you feeling out of control, hopeless, and helpless.

Although each of us differs in how much of life’s ambiguity we can tolerate, there are some situations that challenge even the most risk tolerant among us. Humans love a sense of order and predictability; chaos and the random nature of life can be very scary.

When you are living with uncertainty and feel like some of your power in life has been taken from your hands, how do you cope? How do you manage to live in that ambiguous place without falling apart or dissolving into stress and worry?

This is a challenge I’ve faced as a person living in the shadow of cancer. As a cancer survivor, living with the knowledge that your cancer could come back and ultimately end your life is a significant challenge. Finding a way to manage and live with that uncertainty is necessary in order to lead a fulfilling and whole life, as it is with all uncertainty we face.

Here are some tips on how to find peace in an uncertain time:

1. Recognize That Total Certainty Is an Illusion

This is where we take a turn for the philosophical. In learning to live with uncertainty, it took me some time to recognize that the life I had been living pre-cancer was not necessarily any more secure than the life I am living post-cancer. In considering the temporary nature of all things and in acknowledging that change can come at any moment, we can see that total certainty in life is but an illusion.

As much as we would like to deny it, we are always in a state of uncertainty. We take for granted that things will remain relatively constant and have a hard time accepting that huge changes can befall us with nary a warning. As distressing as it is to consider, the truth is that your life can change on a dime.

Driving home from work today, you could be hit by another car and find yourself permanently paralyzed. You could find out that your newborn has a significant medical or mental health issue that will impact your family for the rest of your lives. You could arrive home to find that your house has been gutted by fire and you have no place to live. Alternately, a sudden windfall of cash could land in your lap from the estate of Great Aunt Agnes, or you could get a call from the employer of your dreams, asking you to join the team.

We like to believe we have total control over what lies before us, and, in truth, we do maintain a huge amount of control in the trajectory of our lives. But we don’t control all of it. It’s helpful to remember this during hard times. Just because you now recognize the uncertainty in your life because it is bolded, highlighted, and in flashing neon lights doesn’t mean uncertainty wasn’t there before. It just means it wasn’t as in-your-face as it is now.

Knowing that this is the case makes it much easier to accept that uncertainty is not necessarily an indication that things are going all wrong—uncertainty is the natural state of things. Once you recognize this truth, it’s easier to loosen from the grip of anxiety around the unknown.

2. Practice Meditation

A growing body of research shows that meditation can be of tremendous benefit to people coping with anxiety and depression. I will frequently draw in a mindfulness piece when working with people in therapy, and often this includes meditation.

The real benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it allows you to create some distance between you and your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. Putting even a 15-minute practice into place in the morning will provide a space for your mind to calm and your anxiety to be reduced.

3. Utilize Exercise

I recently attended a workshop focused on releasing stress and trauma held in the body. The woman leading the workshop noted that, in the wild, animals often shake as a way to reduce tension. She pointed out that after an antelope runs from a lion and survives, it will spend some time shaking as a way to discharge the physical tension and release the energy brought on by the fight-or-flight response. Many animals release tension this way, but humans don’t have such a built-in response for discharging the stress we carry. Exercise can function for us in much the same way that the need to tremble functions for a dog.

Running, walking, aerobics, yoga, and weight training are all great for discharging physical and emotional energy that we carry with us during the day. Getting proper physical exercise can also help with getting good sleep, which is essential in thinking clearly and being our optimal selves.

4. Take Action Where You Can

Frequently when we are living with uncertainty, we feel as though our power to control the direction of our lives has been taken from us. This can feel very unsettling, to say the least.

While it’s important to acknowledge that uncertainty is a natural part of life, it’s also important to take action on those parts of your life that you have control over. Sometimes, the only thing we have control over is how we choose to react to the challenges we face. How you choose to face uncertainty is all up to you. Consider how you’d like to move forward with this in mind.

5. Get Support

When difficulties befall you, it’s easy to feel alone. The reality is that each of us experiences suffering. It’s a part of the human condition. The feelings you are feeling have been felt by millions of others. People all over the world, in your town, in your neighborhood, are dealing with uncertainty, too.

Reaching out to others for support can be helpful. Find that friend who has faced some really hard times, who has been through the wringer and kept going. Talk to them about what you are coping with. Some people prefer to seek out a therapist in this circumstance; therapy can be grounding during uncertain times. No matter whom it is, find someone who can help you reconnect with yourself when you start floating into anxiety about what the future holds.

Learning to live with uncertainty is one of the great challenges of life. It’s not an easy task, but learning to tolerate ambiguity is an essential skill for living a satisfying life. It will carry you through many challenging times, and you’ll find yourself living with more appreciation of the moment, which is really all we ever have anyway. Uncertainty can be a great teacher; allow it to be yours!

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Fuller, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Willa

    January 28th, 2015 at 11:00 AM

    Oh I do not cope well with the times of uncertainty at all. I like to know that there is a rhyme and a reason to this thing called life and when that is not present, well I am one of those people who feels like she is in a tailspin. Nope not a good coper when it comes to that.

  • Gracie

    January 28th, 2015 at 2:13 PM

    There are always bound to be those times when nothing goes as planned and you have to be willing to go with the flow. When you are too rigid in what you think and the way that you think that everything should og, that’s when you will always get bent into shape if things do not go according to plan. Much better to be a little more flexible and willing to change when needed.

  • taye

    January 29th, 2015 at 3:39 AM

    shake it off and keep moving forward

  • Shayla

    January 29th, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    I have gone through quite a bit of uncertainty over the past year and there is never anything that can quite prepare you for handling it instead of just giving it over to a power higher than yourself. I have meditated, I have prayed, I have cried and I have… survived. Yes, it has been hard but I am still here even though there were times when it felt like the world was ending for me, I am still here, and I think in many ways stronger than I have ever been before. It has been a learning experience that nothing else could have ever prepared me for, and not that it was enjoyable but I would not trade what I have learned as a result for anything.

  • Peter

    January 30th, 2015 at 10:12 AM

    I understand that it ca be unsettling, but you have to use this as an opportunity to gain some perspective as well as control. This is the perfect chance to show yourself that even though you may not always be in charge of the things that happen in life that should not necessarily have to feel like you are losing control. Use this as a time for balance and a different perspective on life, and it can definitely be a learning and growing experience.

  • Phillip W.

    January 31st, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    Isn’t this a big part of what life is all about, learning to go with the highs and the lows when they come and go?

  • Pam

    February 1st, 2015 at 10:52 AM

    I’ve been very surprised when, in the midst of a disagreement, the other party blurted out “You are just a control freak!” I have been going through 10 years of negative uncertain times filled with forces of nature, terrible relationships, unplanned deaths, illness and most importantly continually duped by abusive con men/women. Losing the ability to trust your own judgement in times of uncertainty only compounds depression from lack of self-esteem.

  • mitch

    February 3rd, 2015 at 3:44 AM

    This might just be a time when you will have to rely on others in your life to help get you through the uncertainty.
    This can be hard, it is difficult for me to feel like I have to depend on other people. I am strong and want to continue being that way.
    But I think that we all know that there will inevitably come a time when we have to have help from other people, that’s just the way that it is and if you don’t accept it when it is given then you will become a little too overwhelmed.

  • Jessica

    March 22nd, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Thanks for sharing , this was so helpful

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    March 22nd, 2015 at 8:48 PM

    Great article Stacey!

    Willa, you said it well, people like to know that there is a rhyme and reason for everything.

    In my practice, I often treat clients for anxiety and phobias they develop after major car accidents. I tell them the same thing Stacey describes, that the risk before the accident was always there. But now, the client is simply more aware of that risk. I had to give myself that speach recently. As a healthy young woman , having a stroke was not something that ever crossed my mind. But, I had a stroke, which led to finding a heart defect.

    I try to deal with it the same way I deal with the knowledge that car accidents can happen. I take reasonable precautions, and focus on going about my day.

    You see Willa, fear of what might happen (whether it’s illness or a cheating spouse) is a lack of trust in yourself to be able to handle what life throws your way. But strength is not the absence of fear, or sadness, or anxiety. It’s feeling those emotions, but not letting them stop you.

    -Dr. Chantal, Good Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

  • Josie

    January 27th, 2016 at 4:18 PM

    Hey, wantes to add something to this article. Humans, lika animals also have the possibility and urge to tremble when experiencing trauma. There is a movement therapy that focuses on letting the trembling happen in a safe and cotroled way. It’s called Trauma/tension release excercises. It might be worth looking into it. It does help me. Have a great day!

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