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The Link Between Anxiety and the Need for Certainty

Have you ever had the thought that you might have possibly left your stove on? Have you ever stepped out of your apartment, made a 180-degree turn, and headed back inside to make sure your straightener or curling iron was off? (It was off, of course.) Ever feel anxious about having forgotten to lock your front door? We all have concerns like these from time to time.

Most of these concerns will sound very familiar to someone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but 80% of the non-clinical population, who do not suffer from OCD can also be troubled by such thoughts.

Some common thoughts that often urge us to seek reassurance are

  • Did I lock the front door?

  • What if my straightener / iron is still on?

  • Did I leave the oven / stove on?

  • What if I made a mistake in this email?

When most of us have this type of thought, it can be uncomfortable, and our automatic reaction is to get rid of this discomfort as quickly as possible. To relieve this anxiety, we go back and make sure that our stove & curling irons are off, our front doors are locked, and our emails are perfect.

The problem is, while on an intellectual level you might know that things are okay, you begin to feel compelled to check anyway. (“I just need to know for sure.”) This need for certainty becomes a habit that is associated with a sense of danger and urgency, locking you into a cycle you feel you must do or else (something terrible will happen!) You might begin to second-guess yourself and check not just once, but multiple times. Essentially, as you engage in checking behavior, it stops giving you the comfort you are seeking, leading you to check more frequently, maybe even seek reassurance from others – becoming almost a prisoner to this cycle.

The effects of needing certainty and seeking reassurance.

Reassurance is not always bad. Sometimes we need to hear things and there is a sense of comfort in other’s opinions, point-of-views or affirmations. However, reassurances can lead to negative effects as well. These can include:

  • Wasting time: Rather than spending countless hours researching, checking, and seeking reassurance, we could spend that time doing something more meaningful, such as reading, learning something, talking to a loved one or simply relaxing

  • Unable to be in the Here and Now: The more time we spend worrying and obsessing about things, the less time we are spending in the present. The constant preoccupation with figuring things out can draw us further away from being in touch with ourselves and our real needs.

  • Worrying about nothing: We can spend hours of our time and energy fretting and worrying, simply to find out there was nothing to worry about in the first place. How many times did you worry about not getting a good grade only to find out you aced the test! Imagine all that time being spent productively and even happily, without being preoccupied and distracted.

  • Sending incorrect signals to the brain: By constantly checking or providing reassurance to yourself, you are telling the brain that these thoughts are legitimate, which in turn reinforces them, increasing the chances of you being uncomfortable and anxious next time you have such thoughts.

  • Effects on memory: Studies have shown that repeated checking or reassurance seeking blurs memory and decreases the level of confidence you may have about something, thus creating more doubt than you probably started out with.

  • Lack of confidence in ourselves: When we seek reassurance from others we lose trust in our instinct and ourselves. We become more focused on what the other person has to say that our own judgment may be sidelined. Eventually, we run the risk of not being able to trust ourselves and our judgment.

So…what can we do about it? What if you could accept the risk and tolerate the uncertainty?

Accepting uncertainty

All of us like to experience some level of certainty in our lives. This makes sense because it helps us feel safe in the world. However, uncertainty will always exist, and it is impossible to be 100% certain of everything. When everyday anxieties lead us to check and seek reassurances, we are constantly living in fear of something bad happening to us, ultimately injecting more anxiety into our lives. One way to free ourselves from the cycle of checking is to practice tolerating uncertainty.

To start accepting uncertainty, we must first be aware of our fears and where they are coming from; Exploring whether these fears are based on reality (or not) and whether they are useful (or getting in our way). Are we paying too much attention to a random thought that popped in our heads (maybe due to listening to the news regarding a recent incident that happened)? Is the thought coming from a previous experience, perhaps when you actually did forget and leave the door unlocked?

We may then briefly assess the likelihood of the said fear occurring. For example, we might ask ourselves questions such as, “How many times have I walked out of the front door in my life, and how many times did I forget to lock it? What’s the likelihood my oven is on?” Once you briefly assess the level of risk, if there is a high probability that things are fine, we can we can say with some level of confidence that it is our anxious thoughts leading us to feel uncomfortable. We now have an opportunity to practice tolerating uncertainty.

When we accept uncertainty, we choose not to give in to our desire to double check, research, or seek reassurance. We instead practice being mindful and present in the moment, in turn creating some distance from our anxiety provoking thought. In these times, you might say to yourself, “this is just my anxious brain speaking, I’m going to choose to stay in this moment and tolerate the uncertainty.” Countering your conditioned habits is by no means easy, and is in fact a brave act. It takes time and repetition.

The desire for certainty is understandable, but a need for certainty can often lead to an immense amount of anxiety followed by emotionally compelling habits that exacerbate your fears. Acceptance of not knowing i.e. uncertainty, may be unnerving at first, however, it is the first step to freeing you from this anxious cycle.

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