“What if I’m the ONE?” Intolerance of Uncertainty, Worry and Anxiety

– Posted in: Anxiety

Your chances of being killed on a donkey are greater than being killed in an airplane crash!

But you say, “Yes, that’s true, but what if I am the ONE?” 

The inability to tolerate uncertainty has been found by researchers to be a core feature of worry. Some worriers say that they would rather know for sure that the outcome will be bad than left in suspense not knowing for sure!

This post explores the relationship between the intolerance of uncertainty and worry, and how they interact with Anxiety Disorders. It also offers a list of topics for you to think about that will help reduce your intolerance of uncertainty and worry.

Intolerance of uncertainty has been extensively researched

Negative beliefs about an uncertain future

The connection between intolerance of uncertainty and worry has been extensively researched, especially by Michel Dugas and Robert Ladouceur. But what exactly is an intolerance of uncertainty? Nicolina Ratto, one of their associates, says that:

Intolerance of uncertainty can be defined as the extensive tendency of an individual to find the possibility that a negative event might occur to be unacceptable, irrespective of its probability of occurrence. 

Some characteristics of the intolerance of uncertainty have been found to be:

  • Negative beliefs about an uncertain future
  • Uncertainty as disruptive and unacceptable
  • Uncertainty in life is unfair and must be avoided
  • Uncertainty prevents optimal functioning

Connections between Anxiety Disorders and intolerance of uncertainty

Generalized Anxiety Disorder has the strongest connections

The intolerance of uncertainty has been associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, panic attacks and Panic Disorder. However, according to Ratto, it has the closest ties to Generalized Anxiety Disorder:

Intolerance of uncertainty has been identified as a key cognitive variable contributing to the development and maintenance of excessive worry, the cardinal feature of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Intolerance of uncertainty can predict worry

How emotional problems are handled

The researchers also have found that how people handle their emotional problems when combined with uncertainty can actually predict whether that person is a worrier or not. Dugas says of one of his studies:

The results indicate that intolerance of uncertainty and emotional problem orientation are strong predictors of trait worry. … The findings also show that intolerance of uncertainty and emotional problem orientation both make common as well as a unique contributions to the prediction of worry.

Are you intolerant of uncertainty?

We all would like certainty

We would all like certainty in our lives, especially when the stakes are high. Most of us know that certainty is something that is rare, but that doesn’t keep us from wishing for it. However, some go beyond the simple wish and demand certainty that is not attainable. This intolerance of uncertainty can paralyze a person’s life while waiting for something that will never come.

How can you tell if you are intolerant of uncertainty? Ask yourself these questions — do you:

  • Reject the evidence that the chances of something negative happening are very, very low? 
  • Continually look for perfect solutions that have to work without fail? 
  • Seek out reassurance and then say, “Well, you can’t tell me for sure?”
  • Believe that if you simply think about a problem — “Is it possible I could have cancer?” — that it means that you absolutely must find out for certain that you don’t?

What can you do?

Some things to think about

Overcoming the intolerance of uncertainty is not something you can do overnight. People who are intolerant of uncertainty usually have practiced for a number of years! However, here are some things to think about to help you on your way:

  • Ask yourself the advantages in accepting some reasonable uncertainty. Would you be less anxious, less worried, and more able to enjoy the present moment?
  • Consider the disadvantages in accepting uncertainty. Does it mean that you are now irresponsible, in danger, letting your guard down? Are these really rational evaluations? Or are you exaggerating?
  • What uncertainty do you already accept? For example, when you drive, take a plane, eat in a restaurant, interact with someone new, go to a new city, start a new project at work — aren’t you already accepting uncertainty?
  • Do you know anyone who has absolute certainty? Anyone? How do they live with themselves? Are they irresponsible or in danger?
  • What is the advantage of uncertainty? Does uncertainty create novelty, pleasant surprises, new and exciting challenges? How would your life be a dreadful bore if you had absolute certainty?
  • Think about how you can actually solve real problems that really exist, rather than thinking of uncertainty. People who fear uncertainty underestimate their ability to solve real problems in the real world. What are some real problems that you have solved? Have some of these problems been events that you didn’t anticipate? Perhaps you are good at solving problems—if they really exist.

In conclusion

All are intolerant of uncertainty to some degree

I think that all of us are intolerant of uncertainty to some degree. When we have to make a big decision, when we hear bad news, or when life throws a wrench in the works, we want to be absolutely sure where we stand. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. We often have to make decisions with half the information we want. We have to tolerate the odds when the doctor gives us an unsettling diagnosis. The vicissitudes of life make us feel that sometimes we are swimming in a shark-infested, fog-covered sea. However, most of us can move on and accept that we can never know for sure. 

For those that can’t, you don’t have to go it alone. Seek out friends and family to talk about your uncertainties with to get some perspective. Therapists excel in helping you through chronic uncertainty and worry. 

The main thing to remember is that uncontrolled worry and intolerance of uncertainty can lead to Anxiety Disorders, which can make your life an intolerable prison. Start today working on your condition. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! 

What do you think?

  • Do you think we can gain certainty about anything in life? Why? How?
  • Are you intolerant of uncertainty? How has it affected your life?
  • Could you add some things to the “What can you do” list?

As always, your comments are welcome!

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Resources used in this post:

Dugas, M.; Freeston, M.; Ladouceur, R. (1997). Intolerance of Uncertainty and Problem Orientation in Worry. Retrieved October 9, 2008 from IngentaConnect Web site: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/klu/cotr/1997/00000021/00000006/00413015?crawler=true

Dugas, M.; Gosselin, P.; Ladouceur, R. (2001, October). Intolerance of Uncertainty and Worry: Investigating Specificity in a Nonclinical Sample. Retrieved October 8, 2008 from SpringerLink Web site: http://www.springerlink.com/content/ku052650374h2112/

Ladouceur, R.; Talbot, F.; Dugas, M. (1997). Behavioral Expressions of Intolerance of Uncertainty in Worry. Retrieved October 9, 2008 from Sage Journals Online Web site: http://bmo.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/21/3/355

Leahy, Robert L. (2008, May 14). “But what if I’m THE ONE?” How Intolerance of Uncertainty Makes You Anxious. Retrieved June 27, 2008 from Psychology Today Web site: http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-free/200805/what-if-im-the-one-how-intolerance-uncertainty-makes-you-anxious

Ratto, N.; Sexton, K.; Robichaud, M.; Dugas, M. (2005, June 9). Intolerance of Uncertainty and Worry: Are They Distinct Constructs?” Retrieved October 8, 2008 from Concordia University Web site (PDF): http://psychology.concordia.ca/fac/dugas/PDF%20files/NR_CPA_HANDOUT_2005_D.pdf

6 comments… add one
Kim Woodbridge November 6, 2008, 4:58 pm

I’m really glad that I don’t suffer from this. I don’t think this way at all. I think the only certainty is that life is filled with uncertainty. Well, I take part of that back. When I didn’t know where my husband was for 10 days last Winter I couldn’t stand the uncertainty. At the time, I think I would have preferred to know that he was dead than not know anything at all.

Many things that people worry about in this country are statistically so unlikely – such as being a victim of a terrorist attack. There is a much better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightening.

But I know this effects many people. When the SARS epidemic occurred, my Mom canceled her trip to come visit me because she didn’t want to travel by train and risk exposure to the disease. Quite ridiculous, really.

Mike November 7, 2008, 3:46 pm

Thanks for the comment, Kim!

I’ve never been a worrier, and I don’t suffer from the intolerance of uncertainty. Out of all the Anxiety Disorders that I am subject to, I have somehow missed those associated with worry, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so intrigued by worry in general and this subject in particular. Another reason I’m interested is that my wife is a worrier and desires certainty in many areas. Trying to understand her has led to my studying worrying and the intolerance of uncertainty a good bit.

I’d like to say that my fellow citizens are rational creatures who take the probability of a negative event into consideration before they feel fear, but far too few of them are. A distressing number are swayed by the hype of the news media, gossipy fear-mongering, and conspiracy theories, among other things.

O temps! O mores!

Marissa October 27, 2009, 6:34 pm

I definitely have trouble with this. Even though the odds are with me on something, I panic about being “the one”. Unfortunately I am dealing with that panic as I type, and that is what has led me to your blog! It is a miserable condition that I don’t wish on anyone. Even worse, I often worry that just by worrying it will increase the odds that I will be “the one”…since my mind is so focused on it.

Virginia Chow April 19, 2012, 11:04 pm

I noticed that as I treat my clients who suffer from GAD, the moment of illumination comes when they understand how their anxiety works and how its engine fuels their intolerance of uncertainty. They understand that no one enjoys being anxious and so worrying is one way to cope with anxiety. Why? Because they don’t have to feel the full brunt of the anxiety in the short-term. This is key, because this temporary relief gives them the illusion of being in control. In the long-term, they understand that the anxiety comes back and they would have to perpetually worry to keep the anxiety at bay. This vicious cycle is the beginning of the process in which my clients learn that “worrying” is not a good way to deal with anxiety – it feeds it!

Danny Gagnon January 25, 2013, 9:22 am

You provide an excellent summary of the link between intolerance of uncertainty, worry and generalized anxiety. In fact, some clients present with sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, irritability, fatigue and restlessness, all of which can be signs of generalized anxiety. Increasing one’s tolerance to uncertainty decreases worrying and the associated anxiety.
Here are a few resources to help out:



Nicolina Ratto, PhD August 18, 2018, 9:09 pm

Dear Mike, thank you kindly for mentioning my research in your well written article on intolerance of uncertainty (IU), worry and anxiety!

Recent studies suggest that IU may be a common factor in emotional disorders. You cannot eliminate uncertainty as it is part of life. Working on your intolerance of uncertainty by acting/behaving “as if” you are tolerant of uncertaintly helps change your feelings and thinking about uncertainty. Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts and you don’t have to believe them. Be mindful and note all the actions you take to avoid uncertaintly (and associated anxiety) and try to gradually reduce these. Your tolerance for uncertainty will grow just like building a muscle (by forming new neural networks in your brain) and you will get stronger and your worry and anxiety will decrease.

Below is a handout to help with IU:

How to Tolerate Uncertainty:

Be well and remember to practice approaching a little uncertainty every day!

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