PTSD and Dealing with Uncertainty
As someone with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I've learned dealing with uncertainty is akin to sitting in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm, praying lightning won't strike you. Uncertainty and PTSD are not my friends. They have not been kind or reassuring. They have not taken my hand and led me toward the sunlight. They have only ever presented as a long, dark tunnel with no end.
Unfortunately, lacking certainty is simply a part of life — and learning to deal with uncertainty has been a huge part of healing from my PTSD.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Uncertainty
Research indicates that an intolerance of uncertainty is associated with posttraumatic stress symptoms.1 In other words, after experiencing trauma, individuals might develop an aversion to or extreme fear of uncertainty. Being able to anticipate an outcome gives the sufferer more perceived control over the situation at hand.
This was the case for me. After a life-altering trauma at age four, I began to struggle immensely with doubt and panic regarding the unknown. Any time I was uncertain about the future — which, in retrospect, was quite often — my brain would fill in the blanks with worst-case scenarios. I never really considered a bright alternative; my brain only ever saw horror. I thought if I could anticipate a potential disaster, I would at least be prepared enough to handle it. If it all went wrong, at least I'd have multiple outs and options to flee. I would have a plan to save myself and others. All the responsibility then fell on me, as it always did.
Dealing with Uncertainty with PTSD
I write this as someone who still struggles with PTSD and is actively dealing with uncertainty. Throughout life, we won't always have the answers, but there are some shifts we can make to manage anxiety. Here's how I've learned to deal with uncertainty and PTSD:
- Focus on what you can control. We live in a world of what-ifs, and though you might crave power over external events and forces, all you really can do is focus on yourself. A game-changer for me has been defining what I can and cannot control. For example, in romantic relationships, it's natural to wonder about the future and whether things will work out. In those instances, you can only focus on being the best partner you can be while also staying true to your values and needs. You cannot force someone to want what you want or love how you love, but you can control whether you communicate your desires and whether you choose to stay in the relationship.
- Brighten the narrative. What if you replaced the word "uncertainty" with "serendipity?" To me, serendipity is the happy-go-lucky version of uncertainty. It's a reminder that even though we might not know how a situation will pan out, that doesn't mean it won't be even better than we could have imagined. For example, if you're worried about your career and whether you'll land a job that pays the bills, shift the narrative and dwell on the positive outcomes that might manifest. Perhaps you'll make even more than you thought possible — all while doing something you love every day. Trust you'll get what is meant for you.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As someone with PTSD, you likely know this best: life isn't always comfortable. It's filled with pain, fear, and sadness, but it's also filled with joy, passion, and love. Two things can be true at once. To lead a fulfilling life, we sometimes must accept the good with the bad — the comfort with the discomfort. Think of some (minor) ways you can expose yourself to stress while working on regulating your nervous system. For example, yin yoga has expanded my ability to deal with physical discomfort. For minutes at a time, I sit in an uncomfortable position and breathe through the slight pain and tension while reminding myself this will help me become more flexible — in body, mind, and spirit.
- Make friends with uncertainty. I mentioned earlier that uncertainty is not my friend because of PTSD. This got me thinking: what if I made more of an effort to be friends with my uncertainty? What if I sat with it, asked it questions, got to know it better, and empathized with it? Maybe that part of you — the part that sends your heart racing and makes you dizzy with fear at the thought of "not knowing for sure" — just wants to be understood. Can you show it more compassion?
How do you deal with uncertainty while battling PTSD? Share in the comments below so we can all help each other.
- Oglesby, M. E., Gibby, B. A., Mathes, B. M., Short, N. A., & Schmidt, N. B. (2017). Intolerance of uncertainty and post-traumatic stress symptoms: An investigation within a treatment seeking trauma-exposed sample. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 72, 34–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.08.011
Caramela, S. (2024, February 5). PTSD and Dealing with Uncertainty, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, March 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2024/2/ptsd-and-dealing-with-uncertainty