We are taught to fear uncertainty, an attitude that creates great anxiety. As if that’s not enough of a challenge, our brains are primed to connect the dots to see links between events. At best this helps us to reduce anxiety with problem solving, creative thinking and deductive reasoning. At worst it can create paranoid conspiracy theories that “see” connections that don’t exist. Recently the metro Atlanta area had a winter storm and it caused severe gridlock that led to many motorists getting stranded in their cars for up to 24 hours. Many individuals actually believed that the government put fake snow in Atlanta. Naturally, there were no dots to connect and there was no government conspiracy. Another, milder version of connecting the dots goes as follows: you may have found yourself thinking that it always rains after you wash your car, you get nothing but red lights when you’re running late, and the elevator is always going the wrong direction when you’re in a hurry. These are illusory correlations, or associations we make when we see connections that aren’t real. (Incidentally, we tend to remember examples that support our illusory correlations and neglect to remember the ones that contradict it. How often do we find ourselves thinking “In a hurry, nothing but green lights as far as the eye can see!”)
Another experience associated with uncertainty is called catastrophization. Let’s say that you’re feeling insecure in your relationship. On a typical day you and your partner text each other several times. On this day, however, you get no replies to your texts. If you’re like most people you immediately begin to feel a sense of worry, wondering what has gone wrong in your relationship. Is s/he angry with me? Is s/he seeing someone else? Has s/he been in an accident? How do you know? Not ones to let an absence of information stop you from getting worked up, pretty soon we select our favorite catastrophe and convince ourselves that something terrible has happened.
The antidote to uncertainty and anxiety is simple: make uncertainty your friend. Using the texting example, the only fact you have is that you’ve not received a response to your communication efforts. There is so much more that you don’t know. Could your partner’s phone battery have died? Might they be engrossed in a good book? Are they speaking with a friend about how wonderful you are? Did they accidentally leave their phone at home? Generating alternatives to the imagined catastrophes is an excellent way of balancing emotion. It also eventually leaves you with one, and only one logical conclusion: you have no idea what’s going on and it doesn’t make much sense to get emotional chasing ghosts. Not knowing is not stressful. Getting attached to negative fantasies is stressful. Delay judgment until the facts come in; when they do you can then feel whichever emotion is appropriate to the information.