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Fear of The Unknown: The Innate Connection Between Anxious Uncertainty & The Need For Control

As we continue to embark on another school year amidst COVID-19, it is apparent that there are small glimmers of hope towards a return to normalcy. However, uncertainty continues to linger and the threat of abrupt change is still very much present for all of us.

As we can all agree, it has been an extremely exhausting year and a half, both mentally and physically. The impact that it has had on our sense of structure, safety and stability will resonate with us for quite some time, leaving us vulnerable to the fear of what tomorrow may bring. 

It is only natural for this sensation of uncertainty to trigger anxious responses. We thrive when in a stable and consistent environment, craving the security of being able to anticipate events around us. Without that security we ultimately begin to experience heightened levels of fear, stress and helplessness.

For those who are predisposed to anxiety, these adverse reactions can become intensified, making it difficult for us to self regulate and maintain balance.  

When we become dysregulated, our bodies react subconsciously by utilizing coping mechanisms in hopes of re-establishing a sense of peace and balance. For many however, these techniques are inadequate and at times, can become counterproductive to overall health and wellness. 

As a way to cope with uncertainty, many of us look to try and control the narrative, seeking ways to gain some semblance of power over a situation in which we feel overwhelmed by. 

 

How do we try to find control?

  1. Overthinking about a situation: 

When faced with uncertainty, many of us immediately respond negatively. We begin to worry about all that can go wrong, analyzing and overanalyzing every potential “worst case scenario.” This impulsive reaction helps give us a sense of control over a situation that may be triggering discomfort and fear. So in order to regulate those adverse emotions, we play out every potential situation in hopes of being able to predict a likely outcome and prepare for any surprises. 

  1. Excessive need for reassurance:

During moments when uncertainty arises, we may also feel an innate need to receive validation from others. We incessantly begin to ask questions about the situation – gauging the responses and opinions of others to ease our worries and fears. 

  1. Maintaining an overly structured schedule and routine

By creating a rigid schedule and routine, many work to eliminate variability from their day. It provides a sense of comfort in theoretically being able to anticipate how each moment will play itself out and feeling in control of the potential unknown that lies ahead. 

  1. Difficulty letting go and delegating responsibilities

To eliminate uncertainty, many of us feel an intense need to do it all ourselves. We struggle with the ability to delegate responsibilities and trust that others will be as capable as ourselves to complete certain tasks. Letting go of the ability to control every aspect of the process is a difficult feat, and can trigger intense dysregulation. So as a result, we tend to overexert ourselves as we attempt to complete all required tasks exactly how we want them to be done. 

 

Learning To Cope With Uncertainty:

For many of us, we behave in a manner that exudes this need for control without even realizing it. At times, it can feel productive and essential for us to be in command. But the reality is that it is triggered by our own anxieties and fears. Once we gain a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and our own intricacies, we can then begin to more adequately accept and embrace the inevitable uncertainty that surrounds us. 

  • Learn about our own triggers with uncertainty: 

Whether it is due to our own past traumas and experiences, or based on information we see on television and social media, it is important to understand the types of situations that may trigger those more adverse responses. Through this conscious awareness, we gain deeper insight into the moments that trigger dysregulation and imbalance within us. 

  • Recognize the sensations that occur when anxious:

When these triggers evoke an anxious response, what does that look like for you? When worry and fear are present, our fight-or-flight response activates our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary breathing and heart rate. As a result, our bodies begin to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which contribute to a variety of physical symptoms. Each individual is different and responds uniquely to that dysregulation. Being aware of our own body’s response helps us to identify when we are feeling triggered by anxiety. 

  • Reframe the perspective to a more rational and realistic approach:

Reframing our thoughts can be a powerful tool because it forces us to look at ‘what is’ as opposed to ‘what if’. This is not about finding positivity. It is about reframing the perspective to see the situation more realistically – recognizing that there is usually a more likely outcome to a situation; one that is much less overwhelming and worrisome.  

  • Utilize more effective tools to self soothe and self regulate:

The more aware we are of our internal processes, the more equipped we become to combat dysregulation. When we begin to recognize an imbalance, it is important to utilize more mindful techniques to help regain stability. Stop, take a deep breath and try to bring open and accepting attention to the present moment; removing ourselves from the event that triggered the anxious response, and focusing on our own internal process. As we work to regain stability through more mindful breathing and awareness of our surroundings, we work to strengthen our own foundation. 

Uncertainty is a common trigger for many of us. After being exposed to a year of constant uncertainty, we are all more vulnerable to fearing the unknown. As we continue to move forward, it is essential that we take the time to recognize how much of a residual impact this pandemic has had on our ability to tolerate the gray areas in our lives. As we gain a deeper understanding and awareness of this internal process, we can work to once again embrace and accept all the inevitable uncertainty that surrounds us.

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If you or someone you love is exhibiting a change in behavior or inability to cope, we are here to help

Nikki Woods

Nikki Woods is a highly-sought after licensed clinical psychotherapist and founder of the Navesink Wellness Center in Rumson, New Jersey. After earning her Masters Degree at New York University, Nikki dedicated her career to studying the intricacies of the developing female mind. She works with patients both locally in Rumson, New Jersey as well as globally via her remote psychotherapy offerings.