Not knowing can be an almighty trigger for anxiety. Not knowing can lead you to latch on to a worrying outcome. You can end up amplifying that worry in your head until it feels very loud and very scary. A worrier clings to a thought and makes it bigger and stronger and more powerful than it actually is – even when there is no objective evidence of any actual threat.
Professor Daniel Gilbert wrote in his 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness that the human brain is an “anticipation machine” whose most important job is “making future”, using information from past and present to help prepare for a desired outcome. But uncertainty can affect the brain’s effectiveness in creating this preferred future, and this can in turn lead to anxiety.
If we look at the seven core symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), any or all of them can be triggered or exacerbated by not knowing what is going to happen.
Seven core symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge.
- Not being able to stop or control worrying.
- Worrying too much about different things.
- Trouble relaxing.
- Being so restless that it’s hard to sit still.
- Becoming easily annoyed or irritable.
- Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen.
Not knowing creates an achingly scary space into which you pour your insecurities and your worst fears. You can find yourself projecting all kinds of worst-case scenarios and terrifying futures into the menacing vacuum created by not knowing. It can feel like agony – physically, mentally and emotionally – to sit with not knowing where, when, how and what is going to happen. You can feel desperate for something, anything, to put you out of your misery. Knowing the worst truth – even if devastating – can feel a relief after imagining all kinds of twists and horrors.
The thing you’re scared about can be relatively major or minor, when viewed objectively. It’s your subjective view of it that brings on the anxiety. It could be a weird noise outside your house in the middle of the night, waiting for the result of a medical test, expecting to hear if your loved one has arrived home safely, wondering whether your first date will lead to a second, or ruminating on whether that awkward thing you said in a client meeting will have repercussions for your career prospects.
Uncertainty about future threat can produce five responses in anxious people, according to the ‘uncertainty and anticipation model of anxiety’ created by researchers Dan Grupe and Jack Nitschke and published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2013.
Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety
- Inflated estimates of the cost and probability of a potential threat: thinking pessimistically, and feeling distress even when there’s a just a minor chance of something bad happening.
- Increased hypervigilance, always on the lookout for threat, and almost anything – even the most innocuous thing – can be perceived as threatening.
- Difficulty picking up cues from the environment that there is no threat – as anxious people become fixated on the threat.
- Anxious people avoid exposing themselves through their thoughts or actions to evidence that might contradict their fearful projections onto the future. When the negative thing doesn’t happen, they develop a false belief that they personally contributed to helping avoid that outcome.
- Showing heightened reactions – and ‘startle responses’ – to the threat of uncertainty, even when that threat seems objectively tiny.
Tips for coping when your anxiety is triggered by not knowing
All five of the above responses to uncertainty may be relieved or soothed by allowing yourself to seek out evidence that everything is OK. Try tuning into the cues in your environment that, when added up, suggest your worries are groundless. These cues may be more effective if gained through your senses – what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
Do whatever you can to calm your nerves so you feel less jumpy and startled at the slightest thing. Grounding means different things to different people, but often the quickest way to feel more centred is through your breath. Aim to breathe through your belly button rather than your chest, and make your out breath longer than your in breath. Do this for a few minutes and you’ll start to feel calmer. Some people prefer to meditate to feel grounded. Others prefer a brisk walk. Do what helps you get back to you.
Write down your worries
A 2019 study by Penn State University, published in the journal Behavior Therapy, found that most things anxious people worry about never actually happen. The study asked 29 people with GAD to write their worries down for a month – and also to note the outcome (whether their fears were realised). The study found that 91% of people’s worries did not come true. And even when they did happen, the outcome was not as catastrophic as the worrier feared they would be. This evidence that most worries don’t come true helped to alleviate anxiety, the researchers found. Try this as a way of identifying the things you really don’t need to worry about.
Distraction doesn’t mean ‘avoiding forever’. It can mean busying yourself with something interesting and absorbing to give yourself some respite from worrying about not knowing. This may be chatting to a friend, losing yourself in a book, doing a vigorous exercise class, or ripping up the weeds in your garden. Do whatever takes your mind off the uncertainty.
Think of the ‘what ifs’
Take the ‘what ifs’ to their worst extreme. Walk yourself through the worst-case scenario and come up with a plan for what you would do if that terrible thing really did happen. You may start to feel reassured that you have a plan A and a plan B to cope with whatever eventuality you’re faced with.
Talk wisely to yourself
Imagine a wise friend was giving you the best advice to cope in the moment. Say that advice to yourself, as though reminding yourself of their wisdom. When you next feel triggered, try a mantra such as: “I have no control over people, places or events. I can only control how I respond to them.” Talking to yourself in this way can help you feel slightly more rational and slightly less emotional in the face of not knowing.
If you’re struggling with anxiety and need support to help you cope, then get in touch with us. We have therapists who specialise in anxiety and will be able to help you. Call 020 8673 4545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your first appointment. We have sessions available seven days a week at our centres in Clapham and Tooting.