Exercise for Anxiety: How to Tolerate Uncertainty

“It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share.” – Pema Chödrön

Uncertainty is often connected with a sense of doubt, anxiety, or fear. This is understandable. The ability to use the information available to us to make the best choice possible in a given moment is a valuable survival skill. Sometimes this means making decisions quickly, as in moments of crisis, wherein we are challenged to scan the environment for whatever cues stand out as “safe” or “unsafe.” Fortunately, most of us don’t live in a constant state of crises that pose imminent danger. Most of the decisions we are faced with in life allow time for mindful observation and reflection.

It’s comforting to feel a sense of control over the next steps you wish to take in your life. The flip side of that comfort is the distress that often comes with uncertainty or ambiguity. It is important to be aware of your personal triggers for emotional states like anxiety, anger, or depression. You can increase self-awareness in this way by directing mindfulness toward general themes, patterns, or events that tend to elicit uncomfortable emotions. If you notice a trend toward difficulty tolerating distress when confronted with uncertainty, you’re not alone.

Reduce Anxiety & Tolerate Uncertainty

When faced with the inevitable aspects of life, such as change, ambiguity, and uncertainty, you can actively reduce unnecessary suffering by directing radical acceptance toward that which is causing distress or worry. Therapist, Carol Vivyan, offers the useful acronym, A-P-P-L-E, as a tool to remember simple skills to apply when faced with uncomfortable uncertainty.


Notice and mindfully observe the uncertainty as it enters into your realm of consciousness.


Choose to respond, rather than react, to your experience. In fact, let go of the impulse to react altogether… just pause… and breathe.

Pull Back

Remind yourself that in this moment, it is fear, anxiety, or worry doing the talking. Thoughts and emotions are not necessarily “facts.” Notice that the sense of needing certainty is not effective.

Let Go

Give yourself permission to release yourself of this illusory need for certainty. No matter how intensely or loudly your thoughts and emotions may insist that you need certainty, remember that the intensity of such thoughts and emotions are temporary and will pass.


Take a moment to explore your internal experience at this time… you’re breathing… you’re ok. Observe the sensations associated with your breath: in… and out. The emotional intensity associated with the distress has likely lessened… and remember, it will. Now, choose to actively redirect your attention toward something different.

The next time you notice the familiar pangs of distress associated with uncertainty in your life, try doing something different than you normally do. Rather than diving – or sliding – into an emotional state of apprehension or fear, take a step back from the situation and observe it with greater mindful awareness. Notice that you have a choice when it comes to reacting or responding to mental, emotional, or physical stimuli. How was your present moment experience of uncertainty different when you chose to approach the situation from a more mindful place?

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Vivyan, C. (2015). Tolerating uncertainty. Retrieved from www.getselfhelp.co.uk/gad.htm

Brodsky, B.S. & Stanley, B. (2013). The dialectical behavior therapy primer: How DBT can inform clinical practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Featured image: Uncertainty by Nicu Buculei / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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