Mindfulness to Cope with Uncertainty

Uncertainty can cause more stress than the experience itself

By Becky Tilahun, PhD

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One stressful aspect of the human experience is our vulnerability to uncertainty. When we are in a professional or personal situation that involves uncertainty, it causes distress. In my experience in school, when we have to wait for our next match or placements, I recall how anxiety provoking it was for all students to just wait for some time for a major life event. In my work with patients with epilepsy who have unpredictable seizures, I see how the not-knowing sometimes causes more emotional stress than the experience of the seizure itself.  We want to control so that we feel secure. We have strong need to know what is to come, and when we can’t know or predict how and when events happen, we struggle.

In mindfulness meditation practice, this distress we experience with uncertainty can be tolerated and even accepted. Mindfulness helps to develop the attitude of calm surrender, being in the moment, being neutral with a nonjudgmental attitude and radical acceptance. Surrendering involves the willingness to accept the outcome of situations, no matter what, after we have done what we can. It involves letting go of the need to have control, to know and to predict. Practicing living in the moment can help us to enjoy the good we have now rather than focus on future worries. Developing a neutral attitude also helps us not to judge our life circumstances and instead focus only on those areas in which we have control. Lastly, radical acceptance means we choose to accept our life circumstances fully with all the good and the bad. We embrace all of it, the difficulties and joys, the challenges and rewards.

Having control is our defense mechanism, and when we cannot know and be certain of some aspects of our lives, we get stressed. By learning mindfulness meditation and practicing the attitude of surrender and acceptance, we can better cope with uncertainty and not knowing. Thus, paradoxically, when we let go of control, we gain control of our inner world. And that at the end is what matters the most.

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Becky Tilahun, PhD, is associate staff in the Center for Behavior Health in the Neurological Institute. She is a clinical psychologist who has been teaching mindfulness meditation to patients for several years. She is passionate about promoting mindfulness to professionals as a stress management tool. She is trained in Mindfulness Meditation at the Duke Integrative Medicine professional mindfulness training program.