There’s plenty to worry about in our daily lives, from imagining you’ll be late for an important appointment to wondering whether you’ll get the good news you’re waiting to receive. The underlying theme of worry is future orientation. You don’t worry about something that happened in the past, even if it didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. You do worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, because you simply don’t know the outcome.
You probably know some people who seem eternally calm even when faced with the agony of waiting for important outcomes that won’t be resolved until a future time point. It may irritate you when these fret-free people tell you to chill out. It’s even more annoying when they say they’re not at all worried about the exact same situation that’s got you so preoccupied you can hardly think of anything else.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who seems immune to worry, think about what allows you to be so calm and collected. Perhaps you just don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of mental bandwidth on the “maybe’s” of events that haven’t happened yet. Your theme song might be Que Sera Sera(link is external): “Whatever will be will be.”
As it turns out, that ability to roll with whatever punches the future holds for you may just be the key to remaining worry-free. University of California San Diego psychologist Jessica Bomyea and colleagues (2015), conducted an intervention based on the idea proposed by others that Intolerance of Uncertanty (also called IU) is the foundation of anxiety disorders. People high in IU don’t like not knowing how something will turn out; in fact, they try to avoid those situations as much as possible. Clearly, the high-IU person won’t enjoy sports, the pleasure of which involves in large part not knowing the ending until the final seconds of a game. This individual will much prefer the tried and true like watching Seinfeld reruns over and over again. Even if the projected outcome may not be a happy one, any outcome is better than no outcome.
The one anxiety disorder in particular that seems most strongly related to IU is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A free-floating form of anxiety disorder (vs. a phobia to a specific object or situation), people who have GAD spend an inordinate amount of energy involved in thinking about events they cannot control. Those high in IU can’t stand not knowing what will happen, but their anxiety primarily stems from the belief that it will be bad. They increase their worry by looking for signs or omens of the outcome, and constantly trying to get information that will hint at what the outcome might be.
To put yourself in the shoes of a person high in IU, imagine that you’ve just been interviewed for an important position or you’ve just had a first date with someone you like. It seemed to have gone pretty well, and you were hoping to hear back by the next day or evening. However, the hours go by and there’s no phone call, email, or message. With each passing hour, you become more upset and pessimistic. If the meeting had gone as well as it seemed to go for you, then the person should have gotten back to you by now. Perhaps you were even told that you would receive an answer by a certain day and time, and that time has passed.
The uncertainty of this outcome can lead you to try to seek answers from knowledgeable sources. You ask your colleagues if it’s typical to hear back 2 or 3 days after an interview. To find out if you’ll have that second date, you’ll do an Internet search of every single advice column you can find to see what a “normal” time for a response should be. Your fantasies then start to wander to what you could possibly do to remedy the situation. Should you be the one to call rather than wait to be called? Again, you turn to online advice columns or to your friends for guidance.
Now that you’ve imagined the agony of uncertainty over an important outcome, you should be able to see what life is like for the person high in IU. However, this person doesn’t just worry about important events; anything with an unclear resolution can produce similar levels of anxious wondering. Travel, which always has an uncertain ending, is like torture to the high-IU person but so is the possibility that the evening meal will come out overcooked or that a child will become ill and therefore not be able to go to daycare. The list is potentially endless of life’s uncertain situations.
Let’s see how you measure up on IU, and after you take this quiz, you can find out why it’s helpful to keep your IU under control. Answer these 12 items from the Intolerance for Uncertainty Scale (IUS; Carleton et al., 2007) by rating each item from 1 (not at all characteristic of me) to 5 (entirely characteristic of me):
1. Unforeseen events upset me greatly.
2. It frustrates me not having all the information I need.
3. One should always look ahead so as to avoid surprises.
4. A small, unforeseen event can spoil everything, even with the best of planning.
5. I always want to know what the future has in store for me.
6. I can’t stand being taken by surprise.
7. I should be able to organize everything in advance
8. Uncertainty keeps me from living a full life.
9. When it’s time to act, uncertainty paralyses me.
10. When I am uncertain I can’t function very well.
11. The smallest doubt can stop me from acting.
12. I must get away from all uncertain situations.
The total scores on the IUS can range from 1 (low IUS) to 60 (high IUS). Among a sample of college students (average age of 20), the total was relatively low with a mean of 26 but the scores were slanted in a positive direction. Taking into account the range of college student scores, a total of 36-46 would be considered high and a score of over 46 very high. Among the clinical sample studied by Bomyea et al., the average was about 38. So, if you’re in that 37 and above range, you’re definitely someone who doesn’t like indefinite situations.
Breaking the scale down further, the first 7 measure prospective anxiety, or worries about the future, and the last 5 tap into inhibitory anxiety, where you let your uncertainty hamper your daily life.
If you’re a high-IU person, though, take heart. Bomyea and her colleagues found that they could ease IU in people with generalized anxiety disorder over the course of a 10-week intervention. The cognitive-behavioral treatment they used focuses on helping individuals identify and then change their dysfunctional thoughts about future worries. Over the course of that 10 weeks, the scores of participants decreased from 39 on the IUS to 32, and scores on a separate worry scale decreased as well.
If helping people identify their IU and then targeting it in therapy seems to alleviate symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, it should also prove helpful for people whose worries haven’t reached diagnosable form.
Some practical tips come out of this study. The next time you’re feeling anxious about what could go wrong in a future event marked by uncertainty, recognize why you’re so anxious and then try to generate alternative ways of thinking about it. Rather than imagining the worst (“catastrophizing”), question why you’re so sure things will go wrong. Even identifying your intolerance for uncertainty can be an important first step to changing it.
It’s reassuring to know that we don’t have to be stuck with a tendency to worry. Who knows, you might even reach a point when you enjoy instead of dread uncertainty. Life is full of surprising outcomes, and yours might be just that much more fulfilling if you start to see them in a more positive light.