If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that develops into or exacerbates anxiety, you’ll understand the difficulty created by uncertainty.
Where possible, it helps to take positive action, identifying helpful steps forward, or developing goals to help you get where you want to be. But this isn’t always an option when you’re dealing with the unknown.
Anxiety can rise when we’re trying to deal with what we don’t know and, to counteract the feeling, we may try to control it.
We might try to influence other people’s responses, what they think of us, or how they behave – especially if they don’t share our sense of urgency – even though we know rationally this might make no difference at all.
We can spend hours looking at our phones or laptops waiting, thinking and thinking some more. We might keep calling or messaging someone who has said they’ll get back to us. We might insist someone does something before they’re ready. No matter what we do, we don’t get what we need in the time frame we need it.
We try to affect or force something that just can’t be controlled.
And this can create more anxiety.
When our thinking creates this kind of “tailspin”, when you find your mind is crowded with “what if’s…”, it can take us down the plug hole of our minds very quickly – and it’s dark down there. Whether it’s not knowing what to say or do, or waiting for news of an outcome of a situation, uncertainty can leave you feeling vulnerable, frustrated and afraid.
Where you recognise you can’t control the wait or outcome – perhaps because it relies on someone else doing something (like calling you back), or waiting for a decision that can’t be rushed – it can help to create a plan. I call this a “Not-Knowing Plan”.
The purpose of the Not-Knowing Plan is to help you manage the time between what’s taking place and the outcome – the period of waiting if you like, that often feels like limbo. It can help to identify in a positive way what you can and can’t control and, where you can’t control something, come up with a strategy for coping that remains helpful and healthy.
Here’s an example:
You’re waiting for some test results or the outcome of a job interview.
Recognise that you’re feeling anxious or worried, and label the feelings in your mind – without getting caught up in the storyline of why. Just label them factually for what you recognise them to be – eg “this feels like worry/fear/frustration”.
Then acknowledge what you can do, or have already done, to help that’s within your control. For example, ask the person you’re waiting to hear from when you’ll get a call from them. Then acknowledge and appreciate what you’ve done to take positive action in this situation. If you want to, say the words (in your mind or out loud) “I’ve done all I can do in this moment”. This is important, to recognise you’re doing all you can constructively to help yourself and the situation.
Then, while you’re waiting to hear, focus on a form of relaxation. You could try activities which help activate the parasympathetic nervous system – your body’s natural relaxation response (the opposite of fight or flight). This isn’t a distraction because you’re acknowledging that you’re feeling something and, instead of pushing it away, allowing it to exist while you work on calming your body and mind. You’re not trying to change anything, except control your responses helpfully and proactively when things feel difficult.
Here’s a mindfulness activity you can try when you feel tension rising:
- Make yourself comfortable, sitting upright in a chair.
- Place your hands in your lap and keep both feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your head upright and if it’s safe to do so close our eyes.
- Bring your awareness to your feet, and feel connected to being in the world right now.
- Then bring your awareness to your breath, just acknowledging that you’re breathing and sink in to its natural rhythm, observing air moving in and out of your body – notice how your chest rises and falls, or how your belly moves in and out as you breathe.
- Then, as you continue to breathe naturally, repeat the following mantra in your mind: “As I sit with not knowing, may I remain at ease”.
Spend a couple of minutes doing this, and then if your thoughts continue to perpetuate anxiety repeat the activity again as necessary. Remember to acknowledge your feelings, whether it’s anxiety, fear or something else – all feelings are valid, it’s what you do with them that counts. Then turn your attention to something helpful you can do, to maintain your wellbeing, whilst you wait to find out what’s going on.
If you find paying attention to your breath difficult, you can use something else as the object of your attention: the sound of birds singing or trying some mindful colouring. Your plan is your own so work out what positive steps you can take that you feel will help. Remember it can be useful to talk about how you feel, so reach out to people you trust and explain to them how they can help be part of your Not Knowing Plan.
©️ Copyright Delphi Ellis. Always speak to your doctor if you’re worried about your mental health.
This article refers to anxiety and how we may attempt to control the outcomes of certain situations. This is not the same as Coercive and Controlling behaviour which is a form of domestic abuse. If you or someone you know may be being controlled by someone or coerced take a look at this list of organisations which may be able to help.