Anxiety or Uncertainty?

In the family counseling Sterling VA finds through my work, the word “anxiety” comes up a lot — in fact, it’s an almost daily topic of discussion with my clients. While anxiety is not usually the issue that leads my clients to seek therapy, it often comes with them anyway. I hear about the myriad ways my clients believe that anxiety accompanies them on their journeys through life: they are anxious about problems their children are having, they are anxious about big issues or questions at work, they are anxious about the state of their relationships. Anxiety has become a therapy buzzword, used so frequently that its meaning has started to become diluted.

Anxiety is real, don’t get me wrong. One useful way to think about anxiety is as the high end of the worry spectrum. Anyone offering the family counseling Sterling VA should trust will tell you that we all worry, and when that worry gets to a level that is difficult to tolerate and causes problems in other areas of functioning, we call it anxiety. As humans, we are unique in that we have the ability to think and wonder about the future. Because we can’t know what is going to happen, we experience uncertainty. High levels of uncertainty can cross that threshold into anxiety, and I think that these challenges are exacerbated in a time and culture where we are used to having information right at our fingertips, whenever we want it. Want to know if your favorite team is winning tonight’s game? A piece of trivia about a political candidate that might bolster your side of a heated debate? Which route to work will get you there most quickly? All of this can be learned in less than a minute with a quick series of swipes on your smartphone. But the future — ah, that’s trickier. We can’t know who is going to win this year’s Presidential election, or whether our kids are going to do well on their standardized tests, or whether our relationship is going to emerge intact at the end of couples therapy. And that’s hard; that’s uncertainty.

An observation I’ve recently made in the family counseling Sterling VA residents seek with us, is that often, people will jump to a self-diagnosis of anxiety without processing the experience of uncertainty and thinking through whether that uncertainty is normal and/or expected for their situation. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that nobody is experiencing anxiety; but I do think that the experience of normative uncertainty is different from “having anxiety” the way I hear many people talking about it.

When we label ourselves as “anxious” or “having anxiety,” we’re allowing ourselves to believe that being uncomfortable with uncertainty is a problem, or that we shouldn’t feel that discomfort. We’re denying ourselves the space to just FEEL what we feel, to embrace uncertainty (which is a vulnerable place to be!), to accept that we can’t know everything and that we have to navigate around that in the meantime. We’ve gotten really bad at just saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t know how I will handle what comes. I don’t know how I will make meaning of the outcome of this problem. I don’t know what it will feel like to live in this reality, or that one. I just don’t know. Somehow we’ve let ourselves get caught up in the expectations that we should have all the answers. We should know. And when we don’t, we label ourselves as deficient, as ill-equipped, as “anxious.” We pathologize uncertainty.

What if, instead, we sometimes embraced it? Or at least, if we accepted that uncertainty was normal, expected, and acceptable? If we could convince ourselves to be OK with wondering what’s going to happen, at least on the things that are relatively low-stakes? How powerfully might that change our experience of ourselves — and by extension, our relationships.

Lindsey Hoskins provides, couple, family and individual therapy in downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA. Call or email today to set up an appointment or complimentary telephone consultation!