By Jennifer Hu
I’ve heard the quote that fear thrives in the unknown. The quote has stayed with me through the years even though I can’t remember exactly where it’s from. Reflecting and looking back, I can see how fear has thrived whenever I’ve faced uncertain situations. If you think about it, the future is always uncertain, whether that’s a few hours or days. We can plan our lives out, but none of us truly knows exactly what the future will be like until we get there.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear grows when there are unknowns. Anxiety looms because the future is almost always uncertain and, therefore, scary. Our brains are evolutionarily wired to look for threats to keep us alive. If you saw a bear or a snake in the wild, you would have to act quickly to protect yourself and your loved ones. To do that, your brain would have to make snap-second decisions based on the information you have at the time (which usually isn’t a lot) and your previous experiences. Your brain will try to fill in the gap to figure out how to protect yourself and how to survive. The brain’s job is to keep you alive by predicting and estimating threats.
That’s how anxiety comes into the mix. Fear and anxiety easily co-mingle because there’s a lot that we don’t know and a lot that we can’t predict very accurately. And yet, we still have to keep predicting and keep on guessing. Sometimes, we feel anxious and paralyzed by fear even though what we’re dealing with isn’t quite on the level of a mountain lion or a bear. But it does feel that way in the moment. Thankfully, there are many things you can do to feel better, even if you are wrestling with a big decision or the uncertainties of life.
Here are 7 steps to try when wrestling with uncertainty:
1. Slow down. Breathe. Pause. And ask yourself – what are my fears and worries associated with this? I challenge you to write down the exact worry or fear in your heart. Take a moment to slow down the racing thoughts and consider what your mind tells you. Write it down, say it out loud, get it out in the open, tell a friend. Let yourself be worried or fearful without judging or telling yourself to push the feelings away.
2. Ask yourself – are your thoughts true? And if they’re true, what evidence do you have that they’re true? Let’s say your mind tells you that you won’t make friends if you move to a different city and you’ll be alone. Is this true? Is it a partial truth or a distortion? Is it a thought your brain tells you because you’re worried and unsure what the future will look like?
3. What is the likelihood that the fear will happen? 15%? 80%? If you move to a different city, is it 100% certain that you won’t make friends, or could it be 70%? 50%? What feels more accurate?
4. If your worst fears end up being true, what will you do? What are the possible options? How will you deal with the worst-case scenario happening? Let’s say your fears come true. You move to a new city, and you can’t seem to find friends. That sounds challenging and lonely, no doubt about it. I hope no one I know has to experience that. But if it does end up being your reality, what could you do in that situation? How would you problem solve?
5. Reflect on how you dealt with uncertainty or something new or scary in the past. Chances are, you’ve dealt with something once scary and seemingly impossible. Maybe you were worried about what it would be like to move to a different city, and now you’re thriving in the place you were once unsure of. Maybe you were once unsure how you would ever feel happy again or manage after a breakup. Take a moment to reflect on how you felt when facing uncertainty in the past and how you worked through it. What were you worried would happen? What ended up happening? What did you learn in the situation? What would you say to your younger self?
6. What advice would you give to a good friend going through the same thing you’re going through? What would you say to them if you knew everything they were going through? The way we talk to ourselves can often be unkind and critical. How we speak to our loved ones or closest friends tends to be kinder and more encouraging.
7. Accept that there are some things in life you just cannot control. The future is outside of your control. Focus on what you can control, like your actions, how you talk to yourself, and your attitude. What do you know with certainty? Sometimes, the work is in learning to distinguish between what’s within our control and outside our limits.
Your brain’s job is to predict and assess threats, and sometimes, it goes into overdrive mode to protect you, which can leave you feeling stressed and anxious. At other times, it is doing its job well and accurately predicts what might happen so you avoid suffering and pain. More often than not, our brains don’t make accurate predictions in their efforts to protect us.
The future will always be unknown, but that doesn’t mean we have to let fear be in the driver’s seat of our car. We can put fear and anxiety in the passenger seat when we realize we have the resources and strength to cope with what’s in front of us. Maybe the fear will still exist, but we don’t have to listen to what it’s saying. We can sit in the driver’s seat and make decisions from a place of groundedness and confidence in ourselves, knowing that we’ve dealt with challenges before and can do it again.
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