Iris Mini: Coping with Uncertainty

“It is an act of courage to acknowledge our own uncertainty and sit with it for a while.” - Harriet Lerner

We all have different capacities for bearing uncertainty. Understanding common human reactions to uncertainty can help you to know your experience more fully.

Cancer can require us to add to our “coping toolbox” by being open to trying some new coping strategies. 

  1. Build awareness. Make a list of the top three uncertainties that occupy your mind and prevent you from living fully in the present. Now list what you do to help yourself cope with each of the uncertainties listed. Bringing awareness to what you are doing or thinking, and exploring its usefulness, can tell you something important.

  2. Allow the uncertainty. Sometimes it helps to embrace the concept. See your uncertainty as a part of being human. Look at it as if it were an object. Examine it - what color and size is it? Imagine taking it out to look at, and then putting it away. Imagine it is small enough that you can carry it with you while also moving forward. Imagery can be a helpful tool in externalizing emotions while still acknowledging them.

  3. Relinquish control over the uncontrollable. Human brains are wired for control to survive. However, many aspects of the future are out of our control, including the way our cells divide, if a treatment works, or how fast a new treatment is available. We can’t control other people’s behaviors or natural phenomena. You can try to notice your thoughts and practice letting go by saying to yourself, “This thought is a need for certainty, which is not possible.”

  4. Practice comfort strategies. To help stay in the moment, try one of these techniques rather than jumping to future worries:

    • Identify what you can hear, smell, see, touch, or taste in this moment

    • Focus fully on the present - try counting or focusing on your breath, a task, or what you see right now

    • Find soothing sensations: tastes, sights, touch, sounds

    • Think about what is most important to you

  5. Schedule worry time. Often it helps to schedule worry time to think about all the uncertainties that are causing you distress. While this sounds counterintuitive, research shows that scheduling a time to worry can help us to contain those thoughts into a smaller part of the day. We can acknowledge our worry and take control of it by delaying until our scheduled time each day. Try spending 20 minutes daily talking, writing, or thinking about uncertainty. Over time you may be able to reduce to even less time.

  6. Consider a “both/and” approach. Many things can be true at once. See if you can gently hold or consider multiple realities at once. For example, you are both unsure about how effective your treatment might be AND you are focusing on taking each day at a time. This helps shift away from hyper-focusing on a future we cannot control.

For many people, cancer forces confrontation with uncertainty about the future and a loss of control leading to feelings of overwhelm. If you are experiencing these emotions, an Iris mental health therapist can help introduce additional strategies to cope.

Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(10), 457–463. PMID: 20817592