Tolerating Uncertainty

Summer 2020

How to cope with the unpredictable nature of our current times

Here’s something to ponder: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when did you experience the greatest uncertainty about what life would hold for you and those close to you?

My most intense encounters with uncertainty have arisen from medical challenges experienced by my two kids. Their various conditions have brought many uncertainties into our family’s life and altered my sense that I can always predict and plan my future.

Yet, for most of us, our encounters with uncertainty before March 2020 pale in comparison with the uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are facing a present that was unimaginable months ago and a future we cannot predict. We face gaps in our knowledge of the virus and its short- and long-term effects on the people who have been infected. We do not yet know the best ways to mitigate its effects on our daily lives. Most importantly, we do not know when and how the pandemic will end. Even for those of us who are accustomed to managing uncertainty, the present situation is extreme.

The pandemic presents all of us with an opportunity to work on our tolerance of uncertainty. People vary widely in how much they are bothered by uncertainty and how much they try to prevent it from intruding on their daily lives. Clinical psychologists have been studying individual differences in “intolerance of uncertainty” for the past couple of decades and have found that people who cannot accept uncertainty and who effortfully try to avoid it are at greater risk of anxiety and depression than those who simply bear uncertainty and recognize that it is an inherent part of life. I conducted a study with approximately 200 Colgate students during the final weeks of the spring 2020 semester, and I found similar results: students with greater intolerance of uncertainty were coping less effectively with the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, efforts to attain certainty simply make feelings of worry and distress worse. So, what are we to do if we are feeling overwhelmed by distress over our uncertain pandemic condition? 

Real-life hardships, like job layoffs or loss of resources, require concrete action, but more free-floating uncertainty necessitates a different approach. Research on the treatment of anxiety suggests that it is possible to become more tolerant of uncertainty. In fact, one of the ways that cognitive-behavioral therapy helps anxious people become less so is by helping them learn to stay in the present and to observe the desire for certainty without acting on it. To do so, one has to first recognize the moments when one is grasping for certainty when it cannot be achieved and then work toward accepting the uncertainty. A particularly helpful approach in those moments is to use mindfulness or meditation practices that keep the focus on one’s experiences in the present without attempting to alter those experiences. As Voltaire noted, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one” — a claim that is true during the pandemic and beyond.  

— Rebecca Shiner is a professor of psychological and brain sciences. Her research lies at the intersection of personality, developmental, and clinical psychology.