Embracing the Unknown: Strategies for Coping with Uncertainty

Woman sitting at home by a wooden window with a smile

A behavioural therapist once said that “certainty is the opposite of living,” a phrase many of us could learn a thing or two from, although embracing new ways of thinking can be a lot more challenging than it sounds.

Embracing the unknown can feel like giving your brain another opportunity to invent yet more frightening narratives, coming up with all sorts of possibilities, ideas, and outcomes that, quite frankly, scare the life out of you!

Maybe your boss looked at you angrily during the morning meeting, and now you’re counting the minutes, hours, or days until you find out you’ve lost your job. 

Or your partner was quieter than usual at dinner, and your first thought was, “They must be cheating on me.

That niggling pain in your right shoulder has been there for some time now, and it’s not long before all logic flies out the window- “Did I overdo it at the gym last week, or do I have a terminal, incurable illness that I don’t know about?”

In an attempt to protect or help us survive something, our brains invent all sorts of stories and ideas, often the worst kind, to help us prepare for a specific event or outcome.  

Our brains adore all things predictable and formulated and intensely dislike anything that wreaks of the unknown.

So, to keep us safe, the brain does what it does best: It kicks into survival mode, producing all kinds of unpleasant symptoms that we wouldn’t have in a thriving brain.

Uncertainty can feel like a toxic substance to the human brain, an outpouring of venomous liquid that can be damaging to the soul, something that can prevent us from experiencing true joy and limit our potential.

So, how can we learn to embrace the unknown and free ourselves from the mental prison of fear and self-limitations?

This article explores strategies you can use immediately to help you cope with uncertainty and embrace the unknown.

How we can help

In the meantime, if you are concerned about your (or a loved one’s) mental health, the Centres for Health and Healing team is here to help.

We know how unpleasant the feeling of uncertainty can be, particularly if you suffer from anxiety disorder, depression, or other mental health challenges.

Uncertainty often fuels mental health symptoms, making it more difficult for an individual to cope with an already challenging condition.

However, with proper treatment, care, and support, you can learn to manage uncertainty and embrace it over time.

Contact our friendly team in Ontario today to learn more about how we can help you cope with uncertainty and live the life you always imagined.

Let’s dive in!

Embracing the unknown: Strategies for coping with uncertainty

Although the primal brain, also known as the reptilian brain, loathes the unknown, uncertainty signifies aliveness, opening us up to possibilities and opportunities that the reptilian brain is not so good at detecting.

When our certainty is questioned, the primal brain gets into a tiz-woz to propel us into action, mainly because it is hardwired to move towards anything designed to ensure our safety.

Although safety is the primal brain’s primary goal, you can learn ways to embrace uncertainty where you still feel safe while leading a fulfilling, joyous life without being locked in a virtual prison by your fears and limitations.

Below are several strategies you can practise immediately to help you cope with uncertainty and embrace the unknown.

1. Build a tolerance to uncertainty

Happy woman smiling hugging

Although this may sound easier said than done, building a tolerance for uncertainty is crucial for our growth, wellness, and happiness.

By resisting uncertainty, one’s fears and worries become magnified, fueling the cycle of doubt, fear, and anxiety.

Fear is often an attempt to control or have agency over something or someone we have no control over.

For example, when we try to control our partners’ actions or behaviours, demanding they stay at home and avoid going to that work party or event, we are revealing a fear of what might happen if they go out.

Perhaps you worry they’ll be unfaithful. Drink too much wine. Or get into a bar brawl.

The illusion that we have control over a person or situation may make us feel good in the short term. However, clinging to ideal outcomes, scenarios, or certain people only feeds the anxious cycle.

Much like Pavlov’s theory on classical conditioning, which suggested that the more a dog associates food with a particular sound, the more it salivates. 

The same goes for resisting uncertainty. 

It fuels the anxious cycle and thus trains your mind to respond to fear when exposed to a specific stimulus, i.e., a partner going to a social function without you.

So, how do you build tolerance to uncertainty?

Researchers say that noticing what you have been resisting or what you’ve been trying to force can be a helpful way to start building tolerance to uncertainty.

Once you recognise the things you’ve been trying to force or establish agency over, you can begin the acceptance process, thus practising your responses to what you can and can’t control.

You may also find it helpful to:

  • Establish healthy boundaries with others.
  • Address your feelings and emotions rather than suppressing or pushing them down.
  • Work on what you can control.
  • Seek the support of a therapist or mental health professional who can help you cope with uncertainty. Behavioural therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy can be beneficial for building tolerance and acceptance of complex or uncertain situations. These treatments focus on changing unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns, allowing you to practise healthy coping skills during periods of uncertainty.

2. Practise mindfulness 

mindfulness written on a rock

Individuals with a low tolerance for uncertainty spend much time asking themselves the “what if” question.

They tend to worry about every possible outcome and what other people might think or say, often ruminating on fearful thoughts and scenarios to the point of exhaustion. 

Mindfulness therapy can help you cultivate present-moment awareness, allowing you to focus on the moment you’re in instead of obsessing over the past or future.

In addition to the above, mindfulness can also help you manage uncertainty in the following ways:

  • Appreciate and express gratitude towards yourself and your loved ones, helping you feel more connected and open to managing change and embracing uncertainty.
  • Manage conflict and stress in more empowering ways, helping you to cope better with the unknown. 
  • Practise “the pause,” allowing you to take time to evaluate situations and respond in more appropriate, helpful ways.
  • Understand your feelings and emotions so that you can communicate them more effectively, leading to enhanced wellness and the ability to welcome the unknown.

To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how it can help you cope with uncertainty, contact our friendly recovery centre in Ontario for further advice and support on our mindfulness therapy program.

We are always here to answer any questions you have!

3. Accept the unknown

Another challenging, albeit important principle when coping with uncertainty is to accept the unknown.

Celebrities like Demi Lovato have long practised this technique, but that doesn’t mean acceptance comes easily- far from it.

Lovato hasn’t always been the fearless advocate for self-love and acceptance she is today.

She’s had a bumpy road to acceptance, struggling with eating disorders and other mental health challenges before finding peace and healing within herself. 

However, nowadays, Lovato is encouraged to inspire her fans by embracing the unknown and dancing in the face of fear (literally!)

The bottom line?

By accepting the unknown, no matter what curve balls, challenges, twists, or turns may await us around the corner, we give ourselves permission to live, feel, and take calculated risks that ultimately benefit us in the long run.

As the saying goes, “A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

4. Reframe your perspective, seeing your problems as challenges instead of viewing them as a permanent fixture

Shot of a father and son hugging at home

The reptilian brain is always on the lookout for danger.

So, we must recognise and appreciate the part of us that works tirelessly to keep us safe in a world filled with unforeseen challenges, heartbreaks, and losses.

Reframing and viewing our problems as challenges can benefit our overall well-being and help us embrace the unknown in ways we could have never imagined. 

This can allow us to cultivate healthy coping mechanisms during stressful periods.

But all this takes practice as well as understanding how our nervous system is orchestrated to keep us safe.

Chronic stress or trauma can cause our primal brain, the part of the brain responsible for our survival and that of other species, to become conditioned to react to things in specific ways.

These responses are often necessary and helpful since they help us survive or escape a specific threat or danger. 

For instance, say someone is being chased down the street by an attacker.

In the above scenario, it would make sense for the individual to run as fast as their legs can carry them toward safety.

However, the same responses can be unhelpful and cause various complications, particularly when no threat or danger exists.

For example, you might jump when the phone rings, a reaction that seems entirely out of context to what is happening in the present moment.

However, the reptilian brain cannot differentiate between the present and the past and is likely reacting in old, unhelpful ways due to a previous event, i.e., when you picked up the phone years ago, only to receive terrible news at the other end.

Trauma treatments such as eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and trauma-focused CBT can help you explore and understand these unique responses, helping you to process any “stored” trauma and reframe your perspective so that you can view your problems as challenges to be unpacked and worked through rather than something to avoid or fear.

Flipping the narrative can help you see your problems as an adventure without becoming immersed in fear, destructive thinking, or other unhelpful behaviour patterns such as substance abuse.

Research shows that cultivating healthy shifts in perspective can help one feel more empowered and experience less anxiety instead of being a victim of uncertainty.

Other ways to overcome uncertainty include:

  • Investing in yourself through hobbies, activities, or therapies you enjoy, such as group therapy, family support, and journaling.
  • Challenge your thoughts and practise not believing everything you think.
  • Don’t resist your thoughts and feelings of uncertainty. Instead, practise observing them with curiosity, letting them pass seamlessly in time.
  • Find meaning in the confusion and chaos. For instance, you may decide to help others facing similar challenges or start your own support group. Whatever gives meaning and purpose to your life!

In summary

Embracing the unknown can be a hard thing to do, particularly at first. 

However, with the proper techniques and strategies in place, you can learn to manage uncertainty by cultivating healthier responses to stress or adversity, thus making more thoughtful decisions. 

This can lead to improved mental health and social relationships over time.

Centres for Health and Healing, addiction and mental health treatment specialists in Ontario

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The Centres for Health and Healing team is here to help you embrace the unknown and overcome uncertainty with confidence and resilience.

Contact our friendly team in Ontario today to learn more about our mental health treatment programs, including our cognitive behaviour therapy, trauma-informed treatment, mindfulness therapy, addiction treatment programs, and more!

We are here and ready to help!

Additional resources

  1. Why You Hate Uncertainty, and How to Cope, Psychology Today, Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, 6 November 2020
  2. How Embracing Uncertainty Can Improve Your Life, Greater Good Magazine, Jill Suttie, 11 March 2024
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