The Anxiety of Living with Uncertainty


From the first-time mankind set foot on earth, creating as much predictability as possible was essential for survival. Uncertainty was a liability. If our ancient ancestors weren’t prepared with enough food, shelter, and defensive capability, it was doubtful they would survive. (See my Caveman Blog). Fast forward 100,000 years, and while most of you who are reading this do not have to deal with food insecurity or worry about housing and physical safety, we are still not comfortable with the unpredictable nature of life, and are often destabilized when unforeseen events occur.

The term “black swan event” was coined over 300 years ago to refer to such unforeseen, consequential events. It seems that in the year 1697, a black swan that was thought not to exist, was discovered in Australia. According to, a black swan event is: “a high-impact event that is difficult to predict under normal circumstances, but in retrospect, appears to have been inevitable.” When we hear that someone we know lost their job, was diagnosed with cancer, had a heart attack, or was in a car accident, we are often shocked and jolted out of our day-to-day experience of life. I suggest that every adult either knows someone, or has personally experienced, one of the above. To illustrate, at some point in their lives, 40% of US adults will be diagnosed with cancer, 77% will have been involved in a car accident, 50% will develop heart disease, with 805,000 of us having a heart attack each year (1 every 40 seconds), and 40% of American workers will have been laid off at least once in their lives. So what are usually seen as rare, black swan events, are in fact not uncommon, and it is likely that at some point in our lives all of us will directly or indirectly experience such an event. The reality is, our lives are predictably unpredictable, and everything is in a constant state of change.


From an experiential perspective, children enter the world “tabula rasa,” an empty slate. Everything a child experiences is new. While children are genetically predisposed to seek the familiarity of their primary caregiver, they are also predisposed to crave novelty. We provide our infants and toddlers with toys that are visually, auditorily, and tactilely stimulating. We send them to preschool, then to kindergarten. We sign them up for little league, music, dance, and art lessons. We take them to zoos, museums and on field trips. One new experience after the other. For teenagers the need for novelty is on overdrive. Often complaining of boredom, all the foundational things that bring adults a sense of stability and comfort bore teens to tears. Video games (for better or worse) have allowed teens to immerse themselves in foreign worlds and stories with uncertain outcomes. There is danger around every corner, and their avatar’s life is constantly at risk. As we move into adulthood, most of us crave more structure, constructing our lives to give us an increased sense of stability. For the most part, uncertainty is unwelcome. To this end, we develop habits, schedules, routines, rituals. We create relationships, we might find a partner, we get apartments or buy homes, we buy cars, we have children, we buy insurance. We affiliate with religious groups, join clubs, root for our home teams. We identify with causes and join 23 and Me to learn about our family history. All with the intention to bring a sense of stability to our lives. As our sense grows that our lives are increasingly predictable, our ability to venture forth each day and take care of life’s demands, and even find time to relax and enjoy our blessings, also increases.

In researching the fundamentals of human happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman (2012) identified what he believed were core features that people, who report as having happy lives, have in common. Seligman pinpointed five features represented by the acronym, P.E.R.M.A. These are Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. As revealing as Seligman’s research might be, most of us intuitively know this. These qualities provide people with connection, and with it, a sense of stability and permanence. Yet no matter what we do to imbue our lives with these qualities, no matter what we do in our efforts to be happy or feel secure, none of us is insulated from the trials, tribulations, and pain that are part of life. More pointedly, when things that seem solid, predictable, and certain, stop feeling that way, our foundations start to crack, our footing becomes unstable, and very often fear and anxiety begin to dominate our lives.

What Now?

So life has thrown you a curve ball, or two, or a dozen, and that’s just this year. You are not getting along with your wife, your new boss is an ass, your oldest kid is drinking, smoking pot and flunking out of college, your youngest teen just smacked up the car and won’t talk with you, your father has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, you have an arthritic hip which is preventing you from participating in your greatest joy, your Saturday morning basketball game with the guys, and, oh yeh, you are losing your hair at an alarming rate. What now? Your illusion of stability has been shaken, and with this comes anxiety, depression and perhaps fear. You are realizing that you might not be in as much control of your life as you had previously believed. You may feel helpless, confused, emasculated (a man is writing this), ignored, unwanted, invalidated…..lost! The fields of psychology, theology and philosophy are rife with theories regarding the underlying causes of these disturbing and often debilitating thoughts and feelings. In future blogs I will address some of the most prominent of these, but now I would like to look at the behaviors many of us employ to manage the thoughts and emotions that arise when confronting uncertainty.

Connecting Your D.O.T.S.

The acronym D.O.T.S. was created by Russ Harris (2013), a leading authority on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is a way to take inventory of how we deal with life’s challenges and the emotional struggles that accompany them.

In general, ACT categorizes actions taken by individuals as either “workable” or “unworkable.” Workable actions are functional, moving us towards living a value-informed life and ultimately reducing our suffering. Unworkable actions are behaviors that may temporarily relieve pain but, in the long run, fail to alleviate it and often result in more suffering. However, actions are not always either workable or unworkable. In different situations, the same action can be workable or unworkable. As an example, leaving a heated argument to calm down, thereby enabling one to accurately understand the other party’s thoughts and feelings, and increase the likelihood that you will respond in line with your values, is a workable action. However, walking out on an argument to avoid confrontation and causing the other party to feel ignored, unvalued, invalidated, is an unworkable action. Same action, different intentions, different results.

The acronym D.O.T.S. stands for, Distraction, Opting-out, Thinking, and Substances. Again, the workability of these actions is based on when, why, and how they are utilized.

  • Distraction is for the most part an avoidance behavior. Not attending to an issue of importance or not paying attention to another individual is not usually workable. However, depending on the circumstance, it can provide an individual with a respite from tension (e.g., going to a movie, reading a book, watching tv, etc.).
  • Opting-Out is usually not workable. It tends to result in isolation and may give the appearance of not caring, which is rarely a sentiment a concerned individual wishes to impart. Opting-out of attending an anxiety provoking situation does not provide much opportunity for growth. On the flip side, if one is already stressed, feeling poorly, suffering from high blood pressure, opting out of a big family reunion may be a workable behavior.
  • Thinking as a strategy can be a real problem. Historically, such behavior led our ancestors to solutions, but today it frequently leads to a circular pattern of functionless worry and anxiety. Most of us confuse rumination with problem-solving. Somehow the mind believes if we continue to go over the same thing, again and again, it shows we care or perhaps increases our chances of finding a solution. But for the most part, beyond problem-solving, thinking usually moves people into the realm of rumination, magnification, awfulizing, mustabation (shoulds, and musts). Rumination is one of, if not the most salient features of anxiety and mood disorders. (See Monkey Mind blog).
  • Imbibing in Substances–drink, smoke, drugs, eating–while providing immediate cessation of anxiety, is not only bad for your health, but often contributes to increasing the underlying anxiety and depression that it is intended to squelch. Again, going out with a friend and having a glass of wine with dinner is by no means unworkable, and could very well be a big part of one’s P.E.R.M.A. strategy, providing a positive, engaging, relating, and meaningful experience. With this said, most recent research studies into health and wellness all point to substance use of any kind as not providing long-term (workable) benefits.

So, there you have it. In life the only thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain. There is no way to be prepared for every unexpected event. However, what we can do is acknowledge and accept the reality of life’s uncertainty and engage in workable behaviors when the unexpected occurs. While I make this sound simple, it is in fact very difficult to do. Our ability to “live well,” despite uncertainty, depends on cultivating our ability to be aware of our thoughts and emotions, and, in the moment, examine them with a sense of acceptance, openness and curiosity. (With a dedicated practice of mindfulness, this skill will become easier.) After this step, awareness of our D.O.T.S. will increase the likelihood of engaging in workable, value-congruent behaviors.

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