"Doubtful or uncertain--having more than one possible meaning--not expressed or understood clearly--difficult to comprehend"
The above is the dictionary definition of ambiguity or ambiguousness. So let's look at how it can be a source of anxiety and, more importantly, how we can deal with it and keep the anxiety under control.
As humans we have a need to understand what's going on, why things happen and, as much as possible, what to expect. It's probably hard-wired into our brains and provides a sense of safety and security necessary for survival. Early man learned that certain events such as the seasons influenced when to hunt, plant crops. On the other hand a solar eclipse was a terrifying life-threatening event. As such, attempts to explain these happenings led to the rise in the belief in supernatural beings and even sacrifices to appease them and prevent future catastrophes.
Not knowing what to expect or why things happen can be a source of anxiety as it's what we don't see that scares us more than what we do see and we prefer certainty to uncertainty. Once we know what to expect we can plan to deal with it. Studies have shown that people would rather get a mild electrical shock now than possibly be shocked later and they show greater nervous-system activation waiting for an unpredictable shock or other unpleasant stimulus than for an expected one.
In an ambiguous or unpredictable situation if the brain cannot tell what is dangerous and what isn't, then anything can seem like a threat. It will always err on the side of caution, better safe than sorry. The distress created is one of the common sources of conspiracy theories, the need to understand and explain why things happen. Studies have shown that 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. A common thread in conspiracy believers is a feeling of lack of control over their lives. This need to understand what happened often leads to conclusions not connected in reality. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories spring up during times of uncertainty and fear, financial crises and high-profile deaths.
So how do we learn to deal with life's uncertainties and the distress they can cause? As a therapist I often hear clients say "Why did this happen to me?", "If I could just understand...", or "It's not fair." One of mankind's age-old religious and philosophical dilemmas is why do bad things happen to good people? Or as Forrest Gump said, "Shit happens."
The Serenity Prayer is a brilliant piece of wisdom that applies in all areas of life. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"--doesn't mean we like it or approve of it, it's just what it is--"the courage to change the things I can"--putting our energy and efforts to where they'll be the most effective--"and the wisdom to know the difference." Let go the idea that things should be a certain way; who says they should? Be open to other possibilities or outcomes. Don't should on yourself.
Learn to accept ambiguity or uncertainty. This may be hard at first but rather than trying to escape the uncomfortable feeling, focus on the immediate present and learn that the distress is tolerable. Check out my blog post MINDFULNESS: ANXIETY ANTIDOTE, (8/2/15). Remember that anxiety is future-based, it's where the WhatIfMonster dwells.
Just do it! Feel the uncertainty and get on with your day. Once we get moving and distracted the anxiety usually decreases or goes away because what we focus on expands. At first this may feel uncomfortable but in time we get better at it.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are a part of life. Trying to control or escape them just doesn't work and can make things worse. Instead, practice accepting what we can't control and focus on what we can. Paradoxically, letting go control actual gives us control.
Next Time: Actually, I haven't decided what my next post is going to be, it's all pretty ambiguous and uncertain. But that's OK, I'll figure it out. See you then.