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Embrace uncertainty: beat anxiety & save mental energy

My wife drove me to the hospital three weeks ago for knee replacement surgery. I could have just enjoyed the ride, but instead, I started wondering whether the surgeon would do the correct operation.

Eric Burk

He'd offered me a partial—the less invasive procedure I wanted—but I'd seen "total" somewhere and worried there might be a misunderstanding.

I asked my wife what I should do. She suggested I only consent to the partial, which would ensure it was the only procedure that could be done. That sounded like a good idea.

But then, the cycle of rumination and repetitive thoughts began.

What if the surgeon discovered I needed a total replacement once the operation was underway?

Would he just stitch me up and send me home?

Should I sign a consent for both procedures?

My wife advised me to discuss it with him once we got there. That made sense.

But what if they put me under before I had the chance?

And speaking of putting me under, hadn't I read somewhere that anesthesia was more dangerous for people my age?

What if I didn't wake up?


When anxiety fuels an endless mental loop

What you're witnessing here is overthinking—mental energy wasted in a futile attempt to resolve uncertainty.

The uncertainty triggered feelings of anxiety, and I started trying to alleviate the anxiety by analyzing the problem and seeking reassurance from my wife.

Of course, that didn't help because neither of us had any way of knowing what would happen once we got to the hospital.

Nothing I did on the drive could change that.

However, I mistook my overthinking for problem-solving and momentarily believed that worrying about the situation would somehow improve it.

Obviously, it won’t. 

All I was doing by overthinking was making myself more anxious. And the more nervous I got, the harder it was to stop worrying and overthinking.

Unchecked, this pattern of thinking can turn into a self-sustaining loop of worry that characterizes conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).


What are the 5 symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder?

The National Library of Medicine lists these symptoms of GAD:

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep)


Reframing uncertainty

While overthinking can lead to stress, not all stress is negative. In the short term, it can motivate action. However, it turns detrimental when it hinders decision-making or disrupts daily life and well-being.

If you find yourself overthinking in situations where the outcome isn't within your control, consider the assumptions you make about uncertainty.

You probably assume it's a bad thing. But that assumption isn't accurate, making anxiety and overthinking almost impossible to avoid.

Uncertainty is an ordinary and necessary part of life that poses no threat to us. We don't need to figure everything out. In many situations, we can't, and if we insist on trying, we can quite literally, worry ourselves sick.

Worrying won't alter what lies ahead

When I got to the hospital that morning, the surgeon came to the lobby, greeted me with a smile, and confirmed he was doing the partial.

"That's all you need," he assured me. Two hours later, it was over—no complications, very little pain, and a faster recovery than anyone expected. No amount of analyzing and reassurance-seeking could have revealed any of this to me.

I just had to tolerate the uncertainty and allow life to unfold.


Embrace the unknown and retrain your brain

Next time you feel anxious about an outcome you can't control, allow yourself to experience the uncertainty.

Resist the temptation to scour the internet for every tidbit of information or endlessly seek reassurance from others. Just practice the feeling of not knowing.

Immerse yourself in it and notice what happens.

The more you do this, the more comfortable you'll become with uncertainty. Eventually, your brain stops interpreting it as a threat and won't trigger anxiety whenever you encounter it. The ability to tolerate uncertainty can reduce your level of anxiety across a wide range of situations.

Remember, the future is only scary when we stare at it from a distance and try to imagine what might be there. Once we arrive, we usually find nothing scary at all.



More about the author

Eric brings over 30 years of mental health experience, serving individuals, couples, and families. As the Clinical Director of an intensive outpatient program, he specialized in mental health and substance abuse treatment. Eric’s background includes mentoring therapists and providing direct client care. He’s a licensed psychotherapist with expertise in a wide range of conditions, employing diverse therapeutic approaches with an emphasis on empathetic listening and unconditional positive regard. Eric and his wife Lynn, also a licensed therapist, enjoy family travel adventures and have explored destinations worldwide.

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