You walk into work, coffee in hand and settle into your desk chair. As always, you log in to your email, scanning the inbox for any immediate calls to action.
Your eye lands on a subject line that seems to blare at you: the company is being reorganized. You open it up to learn your manager and half your team will be transitioning out of your department. No further information is provided. The email assures you that “specialists” will be in touch in the coming weeks to discuss reassignment and new roles. An avalanche of thoughts tumble through your brain and the anxiety rises in your chest. “Will I be okay,” is the phrase that repeats in your mind.
Fear of the Unknown is Normal
To live is to be confronted with uncertainty. It is something we’ve all experienced. Yet, for many of us, fear of the unknown is a source of considerable anxiety and stress. Surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association indicate that uncertainty about finances and health are two of the biggest sources of stress for Americans. The APA reports that a third of Americans have anxiety about perceived instability of the economy, and two thirds of Americans report worrying about the potential impact of changes to health policy.
Fear of the unknown can come in many forms—loss of a family member, changing relationship dynamics, an unexpected diagnosis, or feeling unprepared for a new role like parenthood.
The unknown can be scary and full of potential threats. To manage these feelings, the brain begins to fill in the blanks where gaps in information exist. However, these gaps in information emanate from the emotional part of our brain, the limbic system, rather than the rational parts of our brain. Our ability to reason gives way to our survival instincts.
- Focus attention on the present moment. When dealing with the unknown, it can be easy to fall into the “what if” cycle; What if I get fired, what if my wife leaves me, what if I fail. Worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, when you can change neither, can exacerbate anxiety. Attention to what’s happening right now can help refocus the mind and remind the brain it’s responding to anxious thoughts, rather than reality.
- Use Distraction. The spiral of worry tends to feed itself – the more we think about our worries, the more we worry. Breaking the cycle can help. Go for a walk, watch a movie, do some deep breathing, or pick up a book. Redirecting the thoughts can help calm the nervous system.
- Focus on the things you can control. Fear of the unknown naturally makes us want to exert control. Often, we focus our efforts on things we can’t control: others’ behavior, the stock market, medical conditions, traffic and our feelings. Focusing on what you can control can help you manage fear of the unknown. For example, you have control over your behavior, attending medical appointments, your budget, and how you react to your feelings. Constructing routines can also help you feel like there is a regularity to life that can help you feel safer and make the unknown less It is intimidating.
- Try taking a break from the news. The media’s tendency to lead with stories of violence, destruction and devastation can perpetuate the feeling that the world is chaotic and unsafe. Try listening to an audio book or podcast during the morning commute.
- Be gentle with yourself. You may view others as more resilient in the face of uncertainty, and feel inadequate about your ability to “roll with the punches.” The fact is that we all handle the unknown differently—and that’s ok! It’s important to be honest with yourself and clear about what you need to effectively cope with the stress of the unknown. Consider communicating your feelings to trusted family and friends, who can help remind you of your strengths and abilities.
If fear of uncertainty begins to impact your quality of life, please contact the Viva Center to find out how we can help.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.