How To Manage The Overwhelm Of An Uncertain Outcome
Bringing giant fears back down to size.
I have to go to the dentist this afternoon.
Not for a cleaning, but to have…a procedure.
The appointment shouldn’t take more than an hour. And its only 15 minutes from my house. Which means this lovely dental adventure shouldn’t take more than 1.5 hours out of my day.
But I am nervous about this visit. My mind keeps asking the same questions over and over. Will it hurt? Will they use enough novocaine? Will I say anything if they don’t?
No matter how many times I ask the questions, I won’t know the answer until I actually get there. But the uncertainty is killing me.
So, an activity that is actually only 1.5 hours of my day feels like it has taken over my entire day. I am frantic and overwhelmed. And like I have no time to do anything today.
But its not even the actual things on my to-do list today that are overwhelming me.
Its my thoughts.
Anxiety takes a lot of different forms.
Some anxiety is a giant spike — the panic attack that can come out of nowhere and render us immobile.
But there is another kind of anxiety. The kind that exists as background noise. The kind that permeates our every day life and impacts us in ways we hardly realize.
It’s the anxiety around what will happen and the lack of control we have about the outcome.
The Anxiety Of The Unknown
According to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology by Dr. Stephanie Gorka,
Uncertain threat…elicits a generalized feeling of apprehension and hypervigilance….When a person is sensitive to uncertain threat, they can spend the entire day anxious and concerned that something bad could happen to them.
Managing the thoughts around these issues can take up an enormous amount of time.
There was a period of my life where worrying about uncertain outcomes took over most of my brain.
Several years ago, I was working full time at a demanding job, in a new city, with a new baby. My world turned upside down, and I was never quite sure what would happen next.
For example, I had no idea if I was going to get a good night’s sleep before a big presentation. Because I had a young baby who sometimes slept through the night and sometimes did not. But instead of maximizing the sleep I did get, I’d stay up worrying about when the baby might wake me up. Which only made things worse.
Every day, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. And yet by the end of the day, I could not account for big chunks of my time, and I had barely accomplished anything.
I have come a long way from that time. It has taken a lot of work, and a lot of managing my mind.
I can now recognize the feelings that I am having. I can name them. I can write them down. And for me, recognizing that I am anxious about an unknown is half the battle.
So today, I understand that in reality, I only have one hour of actual time at the dentist. I can choose to worry about the outcome if I wish, but it won’t actually have an impact. Its a waste of my time. I won’t know until I know.
Does this sound at all familar to you? Then you are letting the fear of the unknown keep you from accomplishing what needs to be done in your day.
Here are some of the common thoughts associated with fixating on the unknown.
Thought: I need to understand every possible outcome
This is an uncertainty coping mechanism.
Its called hypervigilance, and its defined as:
a state of heightened alertness accompanied by behavior that aims to prevent danger.
When I am in hypervigilance mode, I am wound up. My heart is racing. And I will use all that energy researching or thinking through all possible outcomes. As if that will help me predict and prepare for the future.
Sometimes I can’t do anything else until I feel that I have understood and resolved the uncertain issue. Which clearly, isn’t possible. And I will do this instead of tackling all the actual to-do’s in my day.
Say I’m waiting on the test results for routine bloodwork from a doctor. It is helpful to a certain extent to be familar with possible outcomes. Like, what it would mean to be hypothyroid versus hyperthyroid.
But reading every article about the thyroid, for hours of my day, makes no sense. Before I get the test results back, I don’t even know if I have thyroid related issues.
What to do about hypervigilance
First, it is important to recognize when you are doing this. Realize that you are trying to predict an unknowable outcome. It is the first step to managing your mind.
Now, I can recognize when I am being hypervigilant. My heart might race and my mind might fixate. But I recognize that I am trying to find a threat that does not actually exist. Or at least, I will never be able to predict it.
So when I find myself doing this, I remind myself. Today is going to be a day where managing my anxiety is on my to-do list. It is not going to take up my whole day. But it is going to be a piece of my day and I have to accept that.
Then, I set a timer. I allow myself to do 15 minutes of “research” and then I need to complete a certain number of actual, real tasks on my list. So, I can read about hypothyroid for 15 minutes, then I need to finish the spreadsheet that needs updating.
If I am really anxious, I will schedule in 15 minute increments. 15 minutes of “research” and then 15 minutes of true work.
This acknowledges that I need to manage my anxiety today. But doesn’t allow me to let the whole day disappear down a rabbit hole.
Thought: what will people think?
This is the perfectionists’ worst nightmare.
It is a different kind of fear of the unknown.
This fear of the unknown is about predicting what people will think about YOU. Its the feeling of dread that keeps you from publishing a story. Or cold calling a potential new client. You don’t know how other people will judge you. And that uncertainty is terrifying.
What most of us do with this kind of uncertainty is to overprepare. To work on something over and over. Edit your story for hours, or days. But never hit publish. Because the thought that people might find your story lacking (and therefore, you) is terrifying.
Hypervigilance is like driving 100 mph in the wrong direction. Trying to predict other people’s thoughts is like driving 100mph with your back tires stuck in the mud. All frantic movement with no forward direction.
As Pavel Somov, PhD notes in his book, present perfect:
perfectionistic preoccupation with outcome distracts the mind from the actual work process and creates performance anxiety that, in turn, undermines productivity or leads to procrastination.
We spend so much time worrying, planning, anticipating the outcome of every action. We can’t actually execute on anything.
What to do about fears around what people will think
This one also starts with recognizing when attention to detail crosses the line. When it reaches into perfectionism.
But after that, its less concrete. Its about letting go of the outcome. Of understanding that you have no control. You can’t predict what people will think. People themselves can’t predict. And your own punishing thoughts are always worse than what others think about you.
And even if other people do think negative things about you, does that mean they are true?
There is a saying that I love to remember when I am struggling with what other people might think. It goes:
You might be the sweetest, juiciest peach in the whole world. There will always be some people who don’t like peaches.
So instead of focusing on what other people might think, you need to find your true inner voice. The one that says “this is good enough.” Find the balance that feels right to you.
And then hit Publish and move on to your next task.
The bottom line is, uncertainty will always exist, for everyone. No matter how much you worry, or plan, or try to predict. The future is not under anyone’s control. And nothing you do will actually change that.
Recognizing our fixation on the larger uncertainty is one of the best ways to begin. Starting from there, we can each find our own way back to the daily tasks at hand. In small increments. Understanding that, as Margaret Thatcher said,
You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.