Originally published on June 1, 2020
Building Uncertainty Through Anxious Questioning
There’s no simpler way to put it — anxiety arises from uncertainty. I mean, just think about it.
What was the last thing you were seriously anxious about?
How you were going to pay your bills after getting laid off six months ago? Driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic last weekend? What feedback you’d receive during your most recent doctor visit?
If you analyze any of these scenarios, or any anxious scenario for that matter, you’ll quickly discover a common theme, and it’s what I alluded to just a minute ago: without uncertainty, there is no anxiety.
Put another way, if you knew exactly how you’d pay your bills or were certain you’d receive a clean bill of health from your doctor, there’d be nothing to worry about. Yes, it’s fairly common sense, but that doesn’t change the fact that without the uncertainty, fear could not proliferate.
This insight, though almost painfully obvious, is important for one specific reason, and it’s this: in reducing or eliminating the uncertainty surrounding any anxious situation, we can also reduce or eliminate the accompanying fear.
So, just how do we accomplish such a feat? Let’s first take a look at what’s going on under the hood during such situations.
Spiraling Downward Into Anxiety
Whenever we’re feeling anxious, and thus, also feeling uncertain, what’s usually happening in our minds is we’re questioning, on some level, how the event, situation, or other source of uncertainty in front of us will unfold.
Though anxious questioning often arises out of good intentions — usually a simple desire to know how things will transpire — it almost always gets us into trouble in the end. This is because, no matter how much of it we do, it can never provide the same certainty as seeing a resolution to the situation in front of us can.
Moreover, and worse yet, such questioning usually does the opposite of what we want it to. Specifically, instead of helping us alleviate our anxiety, it typically breeds more uncertainty and fear, in a downwardly-spiraling fashion.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here. It starts with just two simple questions: “What will…” and “What if…”
Let’s use the job loss scenario from a minute ago as an example. As it pertains to this specific situation, the uncertainty it incites may cause us to ask ourselves, “What will happen if I can’t pay my bills? Will I get evicted from my house?”
Then, worried over whatever it is we don’t want to happen, we move to the next dreaded question — what if? For example, “What if I were homeless? Would I ever be able to get a job again? Would people spit on me in the street and yell at me?” Though these questions may seem borderline ridiculous, they’re the exact sorts of things swirling in our minds when we’re anxious.
Thus, no matter the exact details of how we get there, the process almost always plays out like this: we start with one simple, negative question about the situation at hand and grow fearful of the answer to that question. From there, we ask new, darker questions, then continue the process all over again. That is, at least until our thinking overwhelms us or we take a second to stop, breathe, and consciously break the cycle.
On a biological level, the idea that anxious questioning actually creates more anxiety — and not the opposite — makes sense; our brains see such constant questioning as something of a warning sign. After all, why would we give any subject so much of our attention if it weren’t actually important? (Spoiler alert: we wouldn’t).
Thus, one of the most powerful things we can do when we’re feeling anxious is consciously interrupt our patterns of negative questioning. This helps us reverse our descent into the downward spiral, pulling us back up toward the surface. Let’s break down what I mean by that as well as how that process works.
To keep the idea of joblessness going just a bit longer, let’s assume we’re still fretting over potentially living out on the streets. Though we started by simply wondering how we’d pay our bills during unemployment, we quickly plunged into worst-case scenarios and street-sleeping hypotheticals. Hence the term downward spiral.
The most dangerous thing about these spirals is that every part of them, no matter how deep or ridiculous, feels real. That is, even if all you have in front of you is an unpaid cable bill, the potential of sleeping on the streets can feel just as possible — and just as terrible — as if you were actually confronted with such a potential. Thus, in order to get out of such a cycle, we have to reverse the thinking that got us there. We do this by slamming the breaks on our anxious questioning.
Once we do that, something powerful happens fairly quickly. That is, we indirectly send a signal to our brains that what we were previously spending so much time focusing on isn’t as important as we were just projecting. This, in turn, gives our bodies a chance to come out of their vigilant fight-or-flight modes. Once this happens, we often feel better quickly, largely in part to the fact that our stress hormones have stopped bombarding us.
These positive feelings incentivize us to continue such a practice until our stress-responses turn off altogether. Sure, we could still send ourselves back down the spiral — all we’d have to do is turn the thoughts and questions back on. However, since none of us actually want to experience anxiety, I imagine that wouldn’t sound too appealing.
Convincing Our Brains to Stop Worrying
So, if we shouldn’t question how anxious events and circumstances will play out, what exactly should we do, and why? Though the simplest answer is to just stop such anxious questioning, I think we all know that doing so, in reality, isn’t quite that easy.
The reason for this is that the outcomes of anxiety-provoking events usually mean something to us. For example, if we were to fail an important exam or get kicked out of our homes, we’d likely experience a good deal of pain.
Since our minds and bodies don’t like pain, we, naturally, prefer (and try) to avoid such outcomes. Thus, our questioning, as feeble as it may be at times, often serves as a well-intentioned attempt at controlling how things will play out in our lives.
The problem with such attempts, however, and the reason why I sometimes call them feeble, is that they don’t always inspire us to take action — sometimes they just serve as impetuses for worrying and overthinking. And, since I’m sure you’ve experienced the ineffectiveness of those strategies already, we won’t even consider them as potential solutions here.
Thus, when you find yourself in the throes of anxious questioning, remember this timeless strategy: do what you can, if anything, to influence the outcome of the situation in front of you, then surrender to the fact that the rest of it may be out of your hands.
Yes, it can be a difficult thing to accept at times — we’d all love to control just about everything in our lives. Unfortunately, however, that isn’t always possible; as they say, “c’est la vie.”
But, just because we can’t control the outcome of an experience doesn’t mean we should sit in our houses for days on end, worrying ourselves into oblivion. In my mind, that would be a fate far worse than simply accepting the fact that some events and circumstances come with an inherent level of uncertainty.
Thus, instead, we should resolve to keep our anxious questions at bay. Here’s why: our brains can barely tell the difference between a circumstance in real life and one we’ve conjured up in our minds. This is exactly why you can put yourself in a fight-or-flight state simply by thinking about something scary.
If we extrapolate this logic out one step further, we can use it to our advantage in these “anxious questioning” sorts of situations. That is, we can come to the realization that stopping our incessant questioning, and thus, acting as though we already have a resolution to the situation in front of us, is the same thing, at least in our mind’s eye, as actually seeing a resolution to that problem or situation.
What this means, in practice, is that if we actually stop our questioning, then we’ll turn down (or turn off) the very systems that lead to our anxiety in the first place. Thus, if I haven’t made it clear yet, let me repeat what I’ve been insinuating all along here: questioning creates uncertainty, which leads to anxiety, yet turning off our questioning creates certainty, which can help drive anxiety out.
Thus, as difficult as it may be to do at times, if you can stop your anxious questioning, then you can often power down your anxiety in short order as well. Sure, it’s no simple task, but it’s still an invaluable tool to have in your repertoire.
So, the next time anxiety comes knocking, the only question I actually want you asking yourself is, “Am I thinking about what I can control in this situation or just driving myself mad by cycling over my fears?” Once you have that answer, use it to guide your thoughts in relation to the situation in front of you, and hopefully, in turn, force anxiety out of town.
Thanks for reading! Curious to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
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