Putting yourself into an uncertain situation can be terrifying, but there are behavioural approaches that can help lessen the anxiety (Credit: Getty Images)

“You have to enter the cave you fear to find the treasure you seek” Joseph Campbell

Fear is a word that we hear about often and also experience in our lives regularly. People experience various types of fears; Public Speaking, Death, Darkness, Authority, the Unknown, are among the top.

Most individuals consider fear to be an unhealthy emotion. Why? Because we are taught that in our childhood. And unfortunately, most of us continue believing this through the remaining part of our lives!  And that’s when this ‘harmful and bad’ emotion turns into a personal development inhibitor.

The truth is, that like any other emotion, fear is also useful. Its only when it goes beyond a certain permissible limit does it become unhealthy.

Fear can impact us
  • Comes in the way of experimenting and exploring
  • Stops us from taking risks that help us grow
  • Makes us stay with the status quo
  • Stresses us out and affects the normal functioning of our body
  • Hijacks our brain and prevents us from thinking rationally
  • Eventually leads to mental health issues
  • Too Careless
  •  At times, our beliefs can take us the other way! They can fail to trigger off fear, which may actually be required to keep us safe. This may lead us to disregard facts which in turn can negatively affect our behavior. This is the opposite of being fearful. And is commonly called false bravado.
Our biggest fear is the unknown. It can scramble our thoughts and behaviors

Imagine you are expecting to hear back from a potential new employer about an exciting job offer. Your interviewer was hard to read – there’s simply no way of guessing the outcome. As the days go by, do you half wish that you could just know the outcome – even if it is bad news – rather than endure a single minute more of the agonizing wait?

How about your feelings during dating? Would you rather that someone told you, upfront, that they didn’t want to see you again, rather than waiting for your phone to ping with a new message? Would you even risk your dignity by asking for signs of commitment at an inopportune moment?

In both scenarios – and many more – a feeling of uncertainty can bring acute discomfort. For some people, a general inability to process ambiguous situations can even fuel chronic anxiety disorders. “Uncertainty can intensify how threatening a situation feels,” says Ema Tanovic, a psychologist with the Boston Consulting Group in Philadelphia, who has also researched the consequences of uncertainty at Yale University.

Tanovic says that many everyday situations elicit the same kind of reaction. “People can try very hard to reduce uncertainty and the anxiety that comes with it, like repeatedly calling a loved one to make sure they are OK, texting a crush incessantly when they haven’t texted back, compulsively refreshing one’s inbox when expecting to hear back about an interview,” she says. “Sometimes it works, and the behavior resolves the uncertainty, but these actions can often be quite costly in terms of the time, effort and effect on relationships.”

Our reactions to uncertainty may have made sense in evolution. The brain is constantly trying to predict what will happen next, allowing it to prepare the body and mind in the most effective way possible. In uncertain situations, that planning is a lot harder – and if you’re potentially facing a predator or a human foe, the wrong response could be deadly. As a result, it could pay to err on the side of caution – either by avoiding the uncertainty altogether or by putting the brain and body in an aroused state that is ready to respond to a changing situation.

Despite this common evolutionary foundation to our fears of the unknown, people may vary greatly in their perceptions of uncertainty – beliefs that may shape their responses and their consequences for someone’s health and well being.

Psychologists  measure these attitudes using the “intolerance of uncertainty” scale. To get an idea of how you might score, rate the following statements from 1 (not characteristic of me at all) to 5 (entirely characteristic of me):

  • Unforeseen events upset me greatly
  • It frustrates me not having all the information I need
  • I should be able to organize everything in advance


  • When it’s time to act, uncertainty paralyses me
  • The smallest doubt can stop me from acting

This may be one reason why high intolerance of uncertainty greatly increases someone’s vulnerability to a range of anxiety disorders and depression, as fears linger long after the potential threat has passed.

In most cases, uncertainty appears to be a core element of anxiety – Nicholas Carleton

But with gentle encouragement to step outside their comfort zone, they may find the feelings are not nearly as bad as they fear and that a small amount of chaos in their lives can even offer an opportunity for learning and growth. At work, for instance, you might volunteer to take on an unfamiliar job – and see whether you can manage far better than you think, despite your doubts.

Today’s workplace has been fraught with uncertainty and the unknown. What is happening financially?  How is the workplace coping?  It is incumbent upon managers and leaders to continually communicate with employees in a way that reduces fear and anxiety. They need to check in with staff frequently, asking how they are doing , explaining situations, and most importantly being honest about answers they don’t have.

We are on the precipice of change; large and small.  None of us have crystal balls  to predict the future but we do have the ability to communicate, plan for what if, and know that In some cases, we may even be able to recognize that uncertainty can be a source of excitement. We may not relish the discomfort at the time, but in hindsight, it’s often the element of surprise that makes our successes all the sweeter. Life would be very dull, after all, if the outcome of every event were known in advance – and by learning to acknowledge that fact, we may be better equipped to navigate those unsettling moments of emotional limbo.