How to stop worrying and learn to love the unknown

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(melitas /Big Stock Photo)

(melitas /Big Stock Photo)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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For many Americans, pandemic life has been marked by anxiety. There’s been a constant feeling of uneasiness, just a low-level buzz of discomfort in the background of their lives for the last nearly year and a half.

“We are constantly dealing with uncertainties, big and small,” said Maggie Jackson, a journalist and author who writes about social trends and the impact of technology on people’s lives. She’s the author of “Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention.” She’s currently researching uncertainty for a new book.

“But when questions ratchet up, and there really aren’t answers even on the part of experts, that’s when we’re really dealing with the kind of a ratcheting up of our levels of uncertainty. And that’s where intolerance of uncertainty, as they call it, fits in.”

The number of Americans who experience anxiety has been on the rise for more than a decade, but the figure has grown during the pandemic. More than 42% of people surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 11% from January to June of 2019.

The fear of the unknown is a relatively new area of study within psychology and neuroscience, said Jackson. Previous treatments for anxiety focused on addressing specific phobias, such as the fear of getting on an airplane or the fear of going to a party. But they didn’t seem to get at the heart of the matter.

Now, she says, the focus is on individuals’ negative feelings towards uncertainty.

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“Discomfort with uncertainty is seen as the foundation for anxiety,” Jackson said. “When it comes to sort of a generalized anxiety that is just worrying about almost anything, worrying throughout our lives — which sort of syncs with the pandemic lifestyle, the pandemic mentality — that’s seen as being driven by a fear of the unknown.”

According to Jackson, this discomfort arises because humans are innately driven to find answers. It used to be a matter of survival. The unknown can be dangerous, and the accompanying discomfort is like a warning to the person. It’s like a jolt to the system saying it’s time to investigate — Is this new thing dangerous? Is it time to flee? — and figure out what to do next. In fact, when people are stressed, they think more clearly, and certain types of memory are improved. They’re more open to learning.

Today’s anxiety treatments focus more on treating the fear of uncertainty, and helping individuals assess and change their negative feelings toward the unknown.

Jackson says people can reframe their relationship with uncertainty and that can help relieve some of their anxiety by changing their attitudes toward the unknown. No one likes the discomfort of not knowing something, but rather than viewing the unknown as frightening or dangerous, Jackson suggests thinking about how the unknown can be exciting or interesting.

“You know, you might just think of something that you worried about as a little adventure, rather than something that needs to be mapped out and planned and prepared for and then … worried about,” Jackson said. “If you’re willing to not be quite as afraid of uncertainty, well, then you suddenly become a little more capable of wonder, awe, curiosity.

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