Here is a paradox. So much of this anxiety complex revolves around a desperate attempt to find 100 percent iron clad certainty. The search for certainty in the face of irrationally perceived threats destroys your ability to handle uncertainty in the face of real challenges and threats. The search for safety undermines the very thing you seek.
An Irrational Search For Uncertainty
The intense desire to attain a 100 percent iron clad guarantee that you are safe – the need for certainty – expresses itself in different ways. At the micro level, we seek uncertainty and a sense of safety on a moment-by-moment basis when engulfed in panic or waves of extreme anxiety. At the macro level, we may be driven to seek certainty in relation to longer time scales. Health, social interaction, current events, politics, money, family, relationships. We can find ourselves gripped by the drive to seek certainty and therefore safety, in all of these contexts. In all contexts, the problem here isn’t the normal human affinity for safety and predictability. The problem is the irrational nature of the drive for uncertainty as it exists in the context of an anxiety disorder. If you are crippled by thoughts that revolve around “Oh my God” or “What if?”, you are engaging in an irrational or even obsessive safety seeking of certainty.
The Distortion of Fear – Seeking Certainty In a World That Looks SO Dangerous
There are uncertainties in life. There always will be. The world can be unpredictable. Life throws unexpected challenges at us all the time. Welcome to being human. When you are viewing the world through a lens created by irrational and obsessive fear, however, this lens will distort things in a very big way. Your fear lens can make every moment – or life in general – seem inherently dangerous and highly threatening. Recognize that your fear lens is sometimes creating threats where non exist, and is sometimes magnifying a threat FAR beyond it’s real potential impact on your life. The fear lens will fabricate threats that don’t exist and will incorrectly turn possibility into high probability. Just because something is possible does not make it probably, yet the fear lens will cloud your judgement in this area.
Cleaning Your Glasses … With More Dirt
Imagine wearing glasses. When they get dirty, we clean them because a clear view of the world makes life easier to navigate. But when you respond to uncertainty and irrational fear with an even greater and more irrational effort to attain certainty and safety, you are not cleaning your glasses. You are smearing more dirt on them! The obsessive drive to seek certainty and safety in response to irrationally manufactured or magnified threats actually adds more dirt and grime to your fear lens. Over time it becomes harder and harder to see through those lenses. All you see is fear. All you see are threats that often don’t exist or have been magnified 100o times. Your ability to navigate life and meet actual challenges and tolerate real uncertainty is degraded. All you want to do is see clearly, but the method you’re using to clean those glasses is just making them dirtier over time.
Why Cognitive Load Matters
Research in cognitive science and the behavioral sciences gives us a concept called “cognitive load”. We know that human beings have a pretty narrow range when it comes to the ability to handle multiple ideas, tasks, concepts, and bits of information at the same time. We’re just not good at tracking and processing lots of things all at once. When you continually grab onto thoughts, ideas, rituals and safety behaviors designed to keep you safe or provide certainty that you won’t ever attain, you are adding needlessly to your cognitive load. The act of thinking and evading danger themselves become all you can effectively do. Your ability to engage with the world outside that context gets degraded. Imagine that you are back in school and about to take a math test. Before you start the test you start listening to your favorite songs, singling along, texting with two friends, reading two books, and cooking a five course meal. Do you think you’ll do very well on that test? Will you be able to focus on that test while also doing all those other things that you don’t actually have to do at that moment?
The obsessive an irrational drive for certainty and safety becomes such a heavy load that it inhibits our ability to handle anything else that pops up in real life. Your drive for certainty and safety undermine the very thing you seek.
What Can We Do About It?
Sadly, the answer is what you’re hoping it won’t be. The solution to this problem is to accept that you are NOT required to overthink, obsess, analyze and otherwise engage in this obsessive drive to seek certainty. You have to accept that you are NOT required to take immediate special evasive action to avoid anxiety and panic. You CAN learn different ways to react to these urges. We can learn to face fear and uncertainty without trying to save yourself. This will be VERY scary. You will feel unsafe and unsteady and even more uncertain. But in the end you will still wind up OK. As usual, this is the key. The experience of winding up OK even without actively trying to create certainty and safety is what teaches you experientially that you didn’t need to seek those things to begin with. You are teaching yourself that you can tolerate uncertainty and even fear. You will learn that you can more accurate assess threats and challenges. You will teach your brain that it is capable of feeling unsure while still being capable and competent. You can learn that you are good at life, even when you’re not sure what life will bring next.
This is not easy. You are required to commit to a plan that involves learning what new reactions look like, learning the skills you need to support those new reactions, and practicing all the time. There are no magic words or pills that remove the uncertainty in life, but there are ways to uncover and improve your in-born ability to handle uncertainty when it presents itself. Most of the previous episodes of this podcast, and most of everything I ever say on social media or write in books is focused on how we accomplish this goal. Take the time to listen, read, learn, and take action to change things. You are worthy of that, you can do it, and you deserve it.
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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)