Menu
Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!

4 Tips to Feel Less Stressed About the Uncertain Future

“The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.” ~Tony Robbins

“Uncertainty” may be one of the least popular places to hang out.

I hear this all the time from my clients, friends, and truth be told, from the voice inside my own head. Certainty is almost always preferable to uncertainty. Humans like to know.

I wanted to know when our house was on the market last year. Would it sell? When would it sell? How much would we get? Should we start packing up closets now, or wait until the offers start rolling in?

I found it difficult to be in the moment with all of that uncertainty swirling around. It felt so difficult, in fact, that I found myself creating action steps that were not yet necessary—such as packing up closets—in an attempt to distract myself from the uncertainty-induced anxiety I didn’t want to feel.

Similarly, I really wanted to know when I was forming my business a few years ago.

Rather than revel in the excitement of the unknown, I wanted certainty. I wanted to know what it would look like in one year and in ten years. Where would my clients come from? What would my days feel like? I wanted to know exactly how everything would fall into place.

Mostly, I wanted a guarantee that it would “work” the way I hoped it would. Faith wasn’t going to cut it. The thrill of anticipation? No, thank you.

I had no interest in fuzzy details or that wide open place where you’re not sure what’s happening but anything is possible. I would have taken certainty any day of the week.

Wide open views and unlimited possibilities aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Most of us, it seems, want to know. We want to know where we’ll live, what our next career will look like, and how it will all go down.

It almost doesn’t matter if what we know is accurate, beneficial, or true.

We aren’t searching for truth or clarity or insight as much as we’re simply searching for something reliable to grab ahold of.

But the more I’ve worked to foster inner peace and the more I’ve tested the uncertainty waters with curiosity and a little less fear, the more I  think uncertainty gets a bad rap. Maybe it doesn’t have to be so bad.

Here are four steps we can take to make uncertainty bearable. Exciting, even.

But let’s start with bearable…first things, first.

1. Know that you’re not seeing every option.

When uncertainty strikes, our mind goes to work trying to predict how things will turn out. We choose from the options that are apparent to us—the ones we can see in the moment. But those options are never the whole story.

In the middle of uncertainty around my new business, I could only see a couple very limited possibilities. I could fail miserably. That possibility was clear. Or I could squeak by. Those were about the only options I could even fathom.

Although something in me knew that there were many, many more possibilities, I continually came up blank.

In the middle of uncertainty-induced anxiety, our vision narrows, literally and metaphorically. Flight or fight takes over and our vision literally focuses sharply while our brain diverts resources to survival, leaving no energy for creative problem-solving.

So, relax.

Know that this is what is happening and remind yourself that there are options that you can’t possibly see right now. Just because you see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Acknowledge that there is a whole lot that you don’t know that you don’t know—and that some of those unknown, currently unforeseeable options will make you very, very happy.

In 5, 10, 20 years from now, you will feel grateful for things you can’t even imagine today.

2. Fight the urge to concretize.

Let your thoughts be fluid. Allow them to float in and out of your mind rather than making them rigid or fixed.

When we want to know what’s going to happen, we do what Pema Chodron calls “concretize our thoughts.” We make them feel real and solid, like concrete. They become unyielding, even when they are so often fear-based and not true.

Rather than turning your frantic thoughts into concrete, allow them to float by as if on water. Encourage mental movement so that better thoughts can eventually float in.

3. Lean into it.

“I’m not sure what’s coming but I’ll handle it” is better than, “What’s going on here?!?”

“The unknown feels scary, but I’ve been here before” is much better than, “This feels like torture!”

Again, it’s about slowing down your thoughts a little. Soften them, take the edge off, and lean into uncertainty.

No one is suggesting you dive in head first and savor every second of it. Not yet, anyway. Just dip a toe in the water and see that you can “do” uncertainty. 

Like most things in life, it’s scarier to think about than it is to actually experience.

4. Look back at everything that has turned out okay.

Remember all the uncertainty in your past and how it always worked itself out. It really has, hasn’t it?

Certainty is an illusion. It’s not real and it has no real connection with how well things turn out.

Try to remember a few times when you felt completely lost and uncertain only to experience an amazing outcome.

I remembered when I was trying to get pregnant. My husband and I tried for a year and a half before we finally saw a positive test result.

And now, watching my two year old run around and looking back on those 18 months that felt like torture at the time, I see so clearly that everything turned out exactly the way it was always meant to. The timing was perfect.

You have these experiences too. I know you do.

There are moments of uncertainty in life. There always have been and there always will be. Sometimes things turn out the way you want them to, sometimes they don’t.

Accepting the uncertainty rather than trying to fight it, remembering that there are amazing outcomes you can’t predict right now, and leaning into it help make it infinitely more tolerable.

Once you’ve mastered “tolerable,” maybe you can take that leap to actually reveling in the wide open possibilities of uncertainty. But first things, first.

Photo by pommekiwi1

Announcement: Want to share your story in the next Tiny Buddha book? Learn more here!
  • Anusha

    “There are moments of uncertainty in life. There always have been and there always will be.” So true. I have been seeing uncertainty as an enemy. It not only spoils the present, but also holds you up from taking the leap.
    Thank you Dr. Amy!

  • Guest

    Thank you, this post is very useful :) x

  • Marna

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this timely post.  I am sharing this with as many people as possible.

  • praxis22

    Learn economics.

    You may think I’m joking but I’m serious, learn economics. Over the years people have developed models and ways of thinking that if you can get your head around, allow you to think about the future and uncertainty, and about the difference between possibility & probability, etc. Stuff like the “sunk cost fallacy” for instance: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/03/25/the-sunk-cost-fallacy/ now think about your personal relationship to it.The key to it is that it *always* a fallacy.

    Know also that economics isn’t math, that’s just there to intimidate people, and to put the models on a more sound footing. But any model can just as easily be a mental model. Seriously, read economics texts and skip the equations, and you’ll still get it. If you go for it, focus on Macro, the micro stuff is mostly nonsense IMO :)

    Economics will warp your brain, and ways of thinking in ways that you are unable to fathom going in. Reason it thus, the difference between life and death is warning, the difference between being crushed by the unstoppable force, and feeling the wind on your cheek as it passes close by can be but a few steps, all you need is a split second. Open your eyes/mind, look up.

    Philosophy is good too, or even a marriage of both, like E.F Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” http://www.ee.iitb.ac.in/student/~pdarshan/SmallIsBeautifulSchumacher.pdf

    Economics and philosophy allow you to get comfortable with uncertainty, with what it is you don’t know, and how to plan and think about success & failure. We are all small and irrational beings, alone in our own heads.

    Set aside some time to just drift, be it in the shower or while out walking, let your brain off the hook, and listen for what comes back, that’s the real you. You are not as helpless as you imagine.

    For everything else there is the desiderata: http://www.fleurdelis.com/desiderata.htm

    Good post!

  • Cinderella

    I guess I am a little bit changed by this words:“The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.” ~Tony Robbins.

  • faith32

    Thanks so much for this post.  It is so true for me as well.  I have been obsessing over the fact that we refinished our hardwood floors in our home with oil based polyurethane and although staying out of the house for 2 weeks before returning for a couple days…then leaving again due to the smell – I fear I harmed my 2 year old because I googled endlessly about benzene and I just want to know for sure if I harmed her or not or if she will get cancer from it or not.  I feel like I can’t control this worry.  Protecting my child has become over the top as I have experienced miscarriages before her and am so afraid to feel that terrible pain again, even more so.  They worry is not protective as I may imagine it to be…instead it just causes major anxiety and takes away from the good times with my daugher.  This site is amazing I am so happy that I just found it a couple days ago.  Hopefully I can break out of this self-destructive mindset.

  • Amod Joshi

    Thank
    you for the post. I typically used to go to Step 3 & 4 and that too after
    the first few moments of anxiety. But I think Step 1 is very powerful and it
    can help to take control of the anxiety straight way. As soon as we start
    thinking about the uncertainty, if we know and if we tell ourselves that there
    are options that are not visible yet, I think our mind will relax instantaneously
    - with just the faith that this is not the end of it. Fantastic. Thank you so
    much.

  • Adrian

    “Rather than turning your frantic thoughts into concrete, allow them to float by as if on water. Encourage mental movement so that better thoughts can eventually float in.”

    You may also then act out of a skilful state of mind rather than an unskilful one. Wait for minds of anger, desire and ignorance to float away and for a mind of love, compassion, joy or equanimity to float in.

  • Habibanazeera

    Fantastic post!
    Thanks

  • Brad

    This was a very timely post. I had not put a name on it, but I’ve been swimming in an ocean of uncertainty anxiety of late! Seems like there are all these things that have loose ends, I’m not sure about what to do, hard time making decisions, feeling paralyzed sometimes. 
    But it’s true, you have to embrace uncertainty, because certainty is an illusion. And uncertainty really does open up an infinite number of possibilities. And I know this, I’ve live this, I’ve told lots of people this, so it seems strange that I’m have so much trouble with it. My behavior and emotions have been very erratic these days. 
    Things have always turned out okay in my life. I think I need to let go and breathe! And meditate.
     

  • Lv2terp

    Fantastic blog post, thank you for sharing your wisdom! This is indeed a challenging task, but one worth striving to achieve! :)

  • Blackcat164

    Great advice. I am still yong and I have time to live me life. So why stress? No rush. What ever happens will happen. Im sure it will all work out in the end. :)

  • http://www.communicationskillsactivities.net/ Steve – Improve Your Speaking

    Now this is a topic worth looking at. Uncertainty and people’s inability to handle it leads to so much trouble in our world. It’s definitely not a comfortable place for many of us. But there is no way around it so it’s best to take dealing with uncertainty as a topic in and of itself and really work on your skill with it. “Uncertainty tolerance” should be a consideration in any personal development plan.

  • David

    Posts like this always come about when you need it – well not so much need it but it is relevant and though it isn’t revealing nor new to me it is still agreeable to my current thoughts re a current situation – well timed and written, thanks :)

  • Tiffanynkeeling

    This post brought me a lot of comfort. There is so much going on in my life that I have NO control of but as a Buddhist I must remember that I will win no matter what. I must continue to have faith and when I feel uncertain I must turn to the Gohonzon my karma & good fortune are always certain. Always have been.

    Thank you.
    T

  • http://www.springtimesoftware.com/David_Spector/ David Spector

    I think Tony Robbins’ criterion is a good one. The only way to live well with uncertainty is to have an anchor within. This anchor can be self-confidence from a strong and healthy upbringing. It can be religious belief. But if internalized stresses have replaced or obscured our inner anchor, then we are stuck in a trap of insecurity or even despair. The only effective way out of such a trap is the elimination of those stored stresses.

    Amy’s analysis is right on. But her suggestions are at the usual level of attempting to manipulate the mind to make it work the way we want it to. Such suggestions do not work because they do not take account of the actual dysfunction of the nervous system caused by these stored stresses. The mind resists manipulation. Telling a depressed person, for example, to “get up and enjoy life” would be an extreme example of such an attempt.

    The important question is what can we do to eliminate stored stresses. And the answer, according to scientific research, is to practice the deep meditation technique called transcending. Before you start worrying that this technique may be difficult to learn or hard to practice, be assured it’s not. It’s subtle, but it’s also very simple. A few learning sessions is all anyone needs to master this effective way to eliminate stresses.

    It works by providing alertness to the mind and deep rest to the body. This combination is the 1-2 punch needed to peel off and dissolve our inner stresses. Freedom from stresses makes us strong in mind and healthy in body. Our new strength makes us comfortable with uncertainty by uncovering our natural anchor, whatever that may be, even if it is only inner silence and confidence.

    For more information on learning transcending, contact any organization that teaches it, including Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Natural Stress Relief (NSR).

    David Spector
    President,
    Natural Stress Relief/USA

  • Karen

    This couldnt have come at a better time…I guess i didn’t expect it, didn’t think it was out there and was pleasantly surprised (kind of the point of your piece right?)
    I am planning a move and so many things are up in the air and so many things have to wait to the last moment as they depend on other things (that i don’t know) happening – I have felt overwhelmed and out of control even realizing I can’t predict the future.  I read your piece and then re read it again and sent it on to a friend going thru something similar - 
    Thank you – i am going to print this out and put it where I can see it from time to time…during the process of this move and remember that it is ok…and i will be ok as it is far from being the first
    (or the last) uncertain thing I have encountered in my life and survived thru.

  • http://twitter.com/DrAmyJohnson Amy Johnson

    While I’m sure Transcendental Meditation is amazing, I disagree that these strategies are attempts to manipulate the mind. I suggest just the opposite, actually: acknowledge the fear you feel around uncertainty, and then gradually lean into trying on new ways of seeing things.

    No forcing or manipulation required. As you say, they wouldn’t work if you did try them. Just a cognitive change in perspective from a place of complete compassion and acceptance of What Is.

  • http://twitter.com/AlphaMeditate Brittany

    From the beginning of my practice of meditation and personal development, I’ve basically looked at all uncertainty as a challenge now. How can I handle this situation best? Granted, there were a few curve balls thrown at me that seemed like utter despair, but I know that the universe always has a flip side to bad situations. Life is much easier when you roll with the punches and deal with the black eyes when you get them :D

  • Terence

    Great post, thank you so so much for this

  • now

    Amy–it is a balance between both

  • kmo97

    This is really great. Thanks.