Learning to Befriend Anxiety and Tolerate Uncertainty

One of the biggest questions I get asked in therapy is, “How can I get rid of my anxiety or my child’s anxiety?” People are often taken aback when I suggest they stop trying to get rid of it and learn to live with it. Paradoxically, the more you try to get rid of worry or anxiety, the stronger it gets. Have you ever tried not to think of something and noticed that all you think about is that subject?

Anxiety and fear are important emotions that, when “used” properly, alert us to danger. Unfortunately, many of our brains are working overtime – giving us false and overblown messages of danger. Those messages, often in form of catastrophic or other distorted thoughts, can trigger our fight or flight system causing a cascading array of physical sensations and a feeling of anxiety. When people feel uncertain or uncomfortable in a situation, which is typical, their risk of feeling anxious increases. If we’re not able to simply accept “what is,” the “what ifs” can take over.

I’ve lived this firsthand, as I recently left my secure job of 12 years to venture out and start my own practice. Not only was I leaving a structure, routine and colleagues I knew well, but I was also changing my clinical focus. There have been many moments where I’ve caught myself getting caught in the vortex of “What if my practice is unsuccessful?,” “What if it was a mistake to leave?,” “What if I’m not meant to be on my own?” I have had to pull myself back to the present. But how did I do it?

Over the last month, I’ve been reminded that learning to tolerate uncertainty is an ongoing process for which we need several different tools in our coping skills toolkit. When I’m feeling anxious, which happens often, I remind myself to breathe into the feeling instead of analyzing why I feel that way. I have also:

  • Enlisted friends and former colleagues as support, as well to keep me centered.
  • Kept a daily journal of what’s gone well (noticing the positive) and what, if anything, I can work on tomorrow.
  • Put notes around my house to remind me that “this too shall pass” and to ride the wave.

What’s more, I’m a big believer in mantras. So when I start to future trip, I gently remind myself that “tomorrow isn’t promised and to be in this moment.” Tolerating uncertainty is about flexibility and one’s ability to roll with the punches.

As parents, we can teach and model for our kids how to become more comfortable with “the mights and maybes” of the world and strengthen their flexibility muscle. Start from a young age normalizing that we don’t always know what will or might happen. “How might you handle the situation if that happens?” is a great question to help children feel more prepared for uncertainty and start developing a problem solver role. Even better, “How do you want to handle it?” gives them the autonomy and reins to start making their own decisions.

When your child demonstrates flexibility, reward and praise him or her as close to the event as possible. Having a visual “wall of mental flexibility” is a great way to display of their efforts, too. To make your own, simply buy a pad of Post-It® notes and, whenever anyone in the family exhibits flexibility, write it on the post-it and put it on the wall. When your child, or family, reaches the top, have a celebration – you’ve earned it!

To learn more about how to best deal with your anxiety (or your child’s anxiety), please connect with me. And discover how anxiety can actually help you, if you let it.

Joanna Hardis is a guest blogger for Northeast Ohio Parent, a monthly publication for parents in the Greater Cleveland/Akron region. Check out her Northeast Ohio Parent posts at northeastohioparent.com/author/joanna-hardis

Related posts:

– – –

Photo by Wesley Eland on Unsplash