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Coping with Ambiguity: 5 Strategies for Navigating Uncertainty

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At one time or another, everyone gets stuck in uncertainty. It’s a scary place to be, and can leave us feeling out of control, hopeless, and helpless.

Although each of us differs in how much of life’s ambiguity we can tolerate (I personally despise it), there are some situations that challenge even the most risk tolerant among us. 

Humans love a sense of order and predictability; chaos and the random nature of life can be very scary.  When you are living with uncertainty and feel like some of your power in life has been taken from your hands, it can be hard to cope.  Managing to live in that ambiguous place without falling apart or dissolving into stress and worry is essential for us to be able to function.  This is a challenge I’ve faced and had to reconcile many, many times. Finding a way to manage and live with that uncertainty is necessary in order to lead a fulfilling and whole life, as it is with all uncertainty we face.

Here are some tips on how to find peace in an uncertain time:

Recognize That Total Certainty is an Illusion

This is where I have to take a turn for the philosophical. In learning to live with uncertainty, it took me some time to recognize that the life I had been living before ambiguity arose, was not necessarily any more secure than the life I am living now. In considering the temporary nature of all things and in acknowledging that change can come at any moment, we can see that total certainty in life is but an illusion.  As much as we would like to deny it, we are always in a state of uncertainty. We take for granted that things will remain relatively constant and have a hard time accepting that huge changes can befall us with no warning.

As distressing as it is to consider, the truth is that your life can change on a dime.  Driving home from work today, you could be hit by another car and find yourself permanently paralyzed. You could find out that your sibling has a significant medical or mental health issue that will impact your family for the rest of your lives. You could arrive home to find that your house has been gutted by fire and you have no place to live. Alternately, a sudden windfall of cash could land in your lap unexpectedly, or you could get a call from the employer of your dreams, asking you to join the team with a huge pay increase.

We like to believe we have total control over what lies before us, and, in truth, we do maintain a huge amount of control in the trajectory of our lives. But we don’t control all of it. It’s helpful to remember this during this hard time. Just because you now recognize the uncertainty in your life because it is bolded, highlighted, and in flashing, neon lights don’t mean uncertainty wasn’t there before. It just means it wasn’t as in-your-face as it is now.  Knowing that this is the case makes it much easier to accept that uncertainty is not necessarily an indication that things are going all wrong uncertainty is the natural state of things. Once you recognize this truth, it’s easier to loosen from the grip of anxiety around the unknown.

Practice Meditation

A growing body of research shows that meditation can be of tremendous benefit to people coping with anxiety and/or depression. I personally do not practice this, but many of my patients do and find great mental peace in doing so. The real benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it allows you to create some distance between you and your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. Putting even a 15-minute practice into place in the morning will provide a space for your mind to calm and your anxiety to be reduced.

Utilize Exercise

I recently attended a workshop focused on releasing stress and trauma held in the body. The doctor leading the workshop noted that, in the wild, animals often shake as a way to reduce tension, my dogs do this frequently. She pointed out that after an antelope runs from a lion and survives, it will spend some time shaking as a way to discharge the physical tension and release the energy brought on by the fight-or-flight response. Many animals release tension this way, but we humans don’t have such a built-in response for discharging the stress we carry. Exercise can function for us in much the same way that the need to tremble functions for a dog.  Running, walking, aerobic exercise, yoga, and weight training are all great for discharging physical and emotional energy that we carry with us during the day. Getting proper physical exercise can also help with getting good sleep, which is essential in thinking clearly and being our optimal selves as you well know.

Take Action Where You Can

Frequently when we are living with uncertainty, we feel as though our power to control the direction of our lives has been taken from us. This can feel very unsettling, to say the least.  While it’s important to acknowledge that uncertainty is a natural part of life, it’s also important to take action on those parts of your life that you have control over, YOURSELF.  Sometimes, the only thing we have control over is how we choose to react to the challenges we face. How you choose to face uncertainty is all up to you. Consider how you’d like to move forward with this in mind as we continue our work.

Get Support

When difficulties befall you, it’s easy to feel alone. The reality is that each of us experiences suffering. It’s a part of the human condition. The feelings you are feeling have been felt by millions of others. People all over the world, in your town, in your neighborhood, are dealing with uncertainty, too.  Reaching out to others for support can definitely be comforting and helpful. Maybe contact that friend who has faced some really hard times, who has been through the wringer and kept going. Talk to them about what you are coping with.  You have a huge family, so utilize them as well.  No matter who it is, find someone who can help you reconnect with yourself when you start floating into anxiety about what the future holds.

Learning to live with uncertainty is one of the great challenges of life. It’s not an easy task but learning to tolerate ambiguity is an essential skill for living a satisfying life and making sound decisions (not decisions based on fear of being alone or fear of the unknown). It will carry you through many challenging times, and you’ll find yourself living with more appreciation of the moment, which is really all we ever have anyway. Uncertainty can be a great teacher; allow it to be yours during this “reconciliation” period.

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Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.