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Does Uncertainty Cause Your Anxiety and Worry?

Intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety relate directly to one another. Not knowing what to expect can truly interfere in your life. Learn why and how it does.Do you hate the anxiety that uncertainty causes? Does not knowing cause you intolerable stress? If not knowing what might happen, officially called uncertainty intolerance, makes you worry so much that it’s interfering with your life, know that you’re not alone. Many people who have anxiety, whether or not it’s an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), also have difficulty living with any sort of uncertainty.

Uncertainty and Anxiety, Worry, and Stress

Research has shown that there is a correlation between the intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety, worry, and stress.1 The less comfortable someone is with not knowing what to expect in a given situation, the higher his or her anxiety is. Uncertainty causes anxiety, leads to worry, and increases stress. Intolerance of uncertainty affects

  • Thoughts
  • Emotions
  • Behaviors

With uncertainty intolerance, thoughts race with worry and fear. The more we ruminate over imagined outcomes, the more negative our thoughts become. Negativity feeds on itself, and as we imagine the worst in unknown situations, anxiety and worry escalate.

Having difficulty with the anxiety of uncertainty impacts our emotions, too. As imagined outcomes plague us, our ability to experience pleasure and other positive emotions is blunted, overshadowed by anxiety. The technical term for this reduction in pleasure and positivity is anhedonia, and it’s a component of depression.

Our behaviors and actions are inhibited by uncertainty intolerance as well. Dislike of the unknown can stop us in our tracks. Have you ever preferred to just stay where you are and keep things as they are rather than stepping out of your comfort zone and possibly experiencing something bad? That’s uncertainty intolerance at work and it can be paralyzing.

An Example of Intolerance of Uncertainty, Anxiety, and Worry

Consider this example: In the middle of the day, you receive a call from your child’s school. The moment you see the number on your caller ID, your mind races with anxiety and worry. Why is the school calling? What happened? You answer and the person on the other line immediately explains that your son had an incident on the playground. He slipped and fell in a large mud puddle and is fine but covered in mud from head to toe. The person asks if you could please bring him some clean clothes right away. More than likely, this explanation (while probably irritating and maybe stressful) alleviated the instant anxiety and worry that spiked when you saw the school’s number.

Contrast that with this midday call from your child’s school: You answer the phone, are told that your child is in the office and that you need to come with clean clothes immediately. No further explanation is offered. You don’t know what is happening or what happened to your child, and not liking the unknown, your mind races to fill in the possibilities. They’re all negative (bullies beat him up and ruined his clothes; he had an embarrassing bathroom accident; he was hurt and is all bloody), and consequently your anxiety and worry skyrocket. By the time you arrive at the school, you’re almost in a panic.

When we know what to expect in a given situation, we can deal with it. Even if the situation is stressful, if we have an idea of what we’re getting into or what might happen, we are typically more confident in our ability to face it without crumbling.

If on the other hand, we have no idea what lies ahead, it can be quite anxiety-provoking. Uncertainties have nothing concrete to manage, so our imagination and anxious thoughts have free reign. Running rampant because of the unknown, they cause problems in our lives.

This much is certain: Uncertainty doesn’t have to disrupt your life. Come back next week for tips on how to deal with anxiety about the unknown and decrease worry.


Berenbaum, Howard, Keith Bredemeier, and Renee J. Thompson. Intolerance of Uncertainty: Exploring its Dimensionality and Associations with Need for Cognitive Closure, Psychopathology, and Personality. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 22 (2008): 117-125. https://pages.wustl.edu/emotionlab/berenbaum-bredemeier-thompson-2008

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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