Ambiguity, a sense of uncertainty about what’s going on or what might happen, is part of life. We all need to be able to tolerate ambiguity, yet this isn’t always easy. This post explores dealing with the unknowns in life and how to handle it.
What in the World is Going on Right Now?
All around the globe, people are waiting to see what will happen after the seismic shift in the U.S. Presidential election. Many of my clients have spoken about a myriad of emotions, ranging from elation to grief, but all agree it’s uncomfortable to not know what might happen.
Our discomfort for not knowing is well grounded in experimental psychology. Research has shown that when given the choice, most people would prefer to receive an electrical shock immediately rather than wait and possibly be shocked later.
Daniel Gilbert, author of the best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness writes:
“Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock”.
Two Ways to Handle Anxiety:
We can’t hope to eliminate ambiguity in our lives but we can manage our reactions to ambiguity in healthy ways using one of two techniques that the best cognitive behavioral therapists employ:
– The “Worst Case Scenario”
This CBT technique helps clients analyze their fears and address them in a logical way. Not knowing what will happen often leads to an unhealthy level of negative thinking and anxiety. People can be too quick to imagine horrible outcomes. The ‘Worst Case Scenario Technique’ is a seven-step process that individuals can use to confront and manage their fears about the outcome of an event, big or small. The technique can be summarized this way:
1. Picture one of your worries
2. Identify worries associated with that event.
3. List the worries that come from that worry.
4. Use if/then thinking to deal with each worry.
5. Acknowledge your ability to cope with the outcome.
6. Work out how you would handle a “worst case scenario” if it happens.
7. Choose a final image or phrase to use against your worries.
– The A.C.C.E.P.T.S Technique
If you find that your rumination is unproductive or gets in the way of doing things you enjoy, temporary distractions can be immensely useful. When there is no way to control an outcome and you find yourself emotionally flooded, it’s time to shift course to a more productive way of doing things. Consciously choosing to focus on something for a time gives your mind some rest and relief. The acronym A.C.C.E.P.T.S stands for distraction techniques individuals can use to feel better fast:
1. Activities – Do some housework or go for a walk.
2. Contributing – Do a little volunteer work
3. Comparisons – Compare your new self to your old self, or yourself to others.
4. Emotions – Do something to evoke the opposite of a negative emotion.
5. Pushing Away – Consciously push the distressing thoughts away.
6. Thoughts – Think about anything else that you can concentrate on.
7. Sensations – Do something positive to engage your senses.
Learn to use one or two of those strategies whenever ongoing ambiguity becomes a real burden. While practicing under the guidance of a therapist can be useful, the techniques themselves are easy to understand.
Quiz: How Well Do You Manage Uncertainty?
Everyone has a different level of tolerance for ambiguity. Wondering how good you are at tolerating ambiguity? There is an easy way to find out. The Tolerance for Ambiguity scale will tell you. You will respond to a set of 16 statements about your attitudes and behaviors. Whether your score is particularly high, or lower than you expected, it is interesting to know where you stand. This information might also be helpful to a therapist who you consult to help you manage anxiety.
Take the Quiz
Life is full of suspense….. Public reactions to the 2016 presidential election make it clear that uncertainty about the future can throw the best of us. We all face personal circumstances that create unhelpful worry and stress. If so, using distraction techniques or working out the worst case scenario and how you can respond constructively can be key cognitive behavioral therapy interventions that you can use to help you feel more grounded and engaged with the real world.