Recently I was chatting with a friend who was struggling with uncertainty about jumping into home ownership after years of renting. Despite months of preparing for a move with his wife, with the pending move a few months away, his uncertainty was spiralling out of control. Worry thoughts started to plague his mind and interfere with his family, work and leisure time. One thought such as “Will our children adjust to a new community and school” turned into a chain of more worrying thoughts like “Will we adjust to commuting? What if we cannot make our make our mortgage payments? Will our relationship be impacted by a suburban lifestyle? Will our dog get attacked by a raccoon in our yard?”
Instead of going to gym before work, he became obsessed with calculating and re-calculating planned and unexpected expenses; and reading about the new community. He became distracted during family dinners and meetings at work. He would wake through the night, and the thoughts would start spinning round in his mind.
Anxiety vs. Action
Life is full of uncertainty. It could be a major life transition like the one described above, a change in health; concerns about children; or daily worries such as running late, a new work assignment; or a change in the weather.
Feelings like uncertainty and worry can motivate us into action. If we notice worry thoughts about a change in our health, booking an appointment with a physician can ease the apprehension. Similarly, studying before an exam may be motivated by worry thoughts about the exam.
Alternatively, we can let the thoughts continually churn round in our mind, convincing ourselves that if we ‘worry enough’ we will be better able to manage the concern. This can turn into avoidance, where we churn the same thoughts round in our mind rather than taking steps to address the concern and/or accepting that some uncertainty is to be expected.
There is Hope
The good news – we can learn to become less fused with the thoughts and feelings. Begin by just observing thoughts and feelings coming and going, almost as if we were standing outside of ourselves and looking in without judgment. Reminding ourselves that just because we are thinking or feeling something, does not make either a fact. Thinking that we will fail an exam, despite hours of preparation does not make it true. Alternatively, disengaging from unhelpful rumination and embracing uncertainty as part of the human experience can leave us with a wonderful feeling of invigoration.