Research has shown that people who worry a lot tend to really dislike feeling uncertain. This characteristic is called “intolerance of uncertainty”. For worriers, the aversion to uncertainty can be so strong that it has also been referred to as an “uncertainty allergy”.
Reacting to Uncertainty
A true allergic reaction happens when someone’s immune system mistakes a non-harmful substance for something highly threatening, and so the immune system tries to protect the body, which leads to uncomfortable symptoms like itchiness, inflammation, watery eyes, or a running nose. For worriers, uncertainty is like an allergen, even though it is not inherently harmful, it causes a strong reaction, the symptoms of which are worry and anxiety.
What We Believe About Uncertainty Impacts Our Behaviour
People who worry a lot react strongly to uncertainty because of beliefs they hold about uncertainty – they might believe “if a situation is uncertain, things are going to turn out badly” or “uncertainty stops me from being organized and prepared”. Negative beliefs about uncertainty lead people to try to avoid or reduce uncertainty in their lives wherever they can. For example, someone might repeatedly re-read an email before sending it or research a physical symptom on the internet in order to try to feel more certain. Most of all, people engage in worrying in order to try to reduce their feeling of uncertainty. The problem with trying to avoid uncertainty however is that uncertainty is unavoidable – no one knows for sure what the future will hold, so there is no way to be completely certain. This means that for people with an “uncertainty allergy” they will constantly be reacting with worry and anxiety.
Overcoming an “Uncertainty Allergy”
The good news for people with an “uncertainty allergy” is that research has identified a powerful strategy for overcoming it. Because we cannot increase certainty, the idea is to increase tolerance to uncertainty. The way to increase tolerance is by embracing and approaching uncertainty. For example, someone who always eats at the same restaurant because they don’t know if they like other food might try to go to new restaurants (Robichaud & Dugas, 2015). Someone who is always planning, might try going to the grocery store without a shopping list (Robichaud & Dugas, 2015). Approaching uncertainty helps to build up tolerance by challenging negative beliefs about uncertainty. The more that someone experiences uncertainty the more likely they are to learn that they can handle it, and that nothing disastrous is going to happen when they are uncertain.
Learning to Tolerate Uncertainty Improves Worry
The treatment for “uncertainty allergies” parallels the treatment of physical allergies. One way that allergies are treated is through allergy shots, where people receive shots with a very small amount of allergen in them. These shots are given regularly, and gradually the amount of allergen in them is increased. Overtime, the immune system is retrained to see the allergen as safe, and the allergen stops triggering a strong allergic response. Just like with physical allergies, we can improve uncertainty allergies by gradually exposing ourselves to uncertainty, and with time, learning to tolerate it. Several studies by researchers Michel Dugas and his colleagues have shown that when people who worry a lot become more tolerant of uncertainty, their worry also improves.
In today’s world, there is no way to always be certain, but with practice we can learn to live with, and embrace uncertainty.
If you want to learn more about how to treat uncertainty allergies see “The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Workbook: A Comprehensive CBT Guide for Coping with Uncertainty, Worry, and Fear (2015)” by Melisa Robichaud, PhD & Michel Dugas, PhD.