We all arrive at uncertainty in different seasons of our lives and in multiple contexts: relationships, career, spirituality. For our brains, feelings of uncertainty are like hunger pains for our stomach. When we are hungry, those pains signal we need food. When we feel uncertain, our brain signals that we need more information. But what if the information we seek just isn’t available to us yet?
When we feel overwhelmed with what seems like too many or too few options, our brains feel exhausted. When stressed or plagued with indecision, our physical energy drops and our mental focus becomes scattered. Our brain becomes exhausted as it exerts so much energy, seeking to gain control over what feels out of control. Tolerating uncertainty and distress is a skill that can be learned, but few of us are taught how to do it. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we learn how to do this through a skill called ‘Distress Tolerance’. Distress tolerance helps us recognize what we can change and what we can’t— and bring some peace in the midst of the uncertainty. We aren’t avoiding the distress or numbing it, we are learning to tolerate it. How do we do this? Begin with the acronym “REST”:
Set an Intention
When we feel out of control, we may get frantic. The first step is to simply pause, RELAX, and give ourselves a moment for our spirit to catch up with our racing hearts and minds. Try to go 5 minutes without analyzing, instead just bring your body and mind into a place of calm so you can effectively think. If you are a person who utilizes prayer, spend 5 minutes in mindful prayer and meditation focused on the love of God (https://soulspace.co).
Evaluate: You don’t have to know everything about the situation, but it’s helpful to evaluate what you DO know. When you find yourself frantic and unsure of what to do, pause and take an account of what you know to be true, about God, about yourself and about the situation at hand.
Set an Intention: Begin to make a plan for how you want to live out your next few moments, weeks or days. You may start by asking yourself, “When I look back on this season 10 years from now, what decisions will I have made TODAY that will help me feel confident I handled this time the best I could, with integrity?” Many times we get stuck in our past versions of ourself but it’s much more productive to consider the future version — and what steps you can take today to set her/him up for success.
Take Action: The main reason why this is the LAST step is because oftentimes when we don’t know what to do, we act impulsively out of anxiety to just have a decision complete. We mix the steps up and try to take action first. But if you’re not sure what to do, jumping into something impulsively has the propensity to backfire. Only after we’ve gone through the above steps (which can truly take 30 minutes or less) should we consider what action steps we can take.
Action steps can be simplified down to three options: “Stop, Go, Whoa!” Whoa meaning, “Wait a minute”. Sometimes we forget that waiting can be an active choice we make. We view waiting from a framework of powerlessness but the very nature of waiting means we are exercising our patience muscle, which is a very powerful thing to do.
If you don’t have the answer yet, it’s because you don’t need the answer yet.
We operate in time, but God works in timing. Our timeline can be very different than God’s timeline. Consider, however, that perhaps information withheld from you during a certain period of time would’ve been too overwhelming for you to process effectively at that point. Maybe if you don’t have the answers yet, it’s because God is preparing you to be the person who can handle the answer — or trust Him in the process. Sometimes, the person we are becoming in the waiting period is much more important than the answers we seek.
We still live, work, love and worship in the waiting period. When we don’t know what to do and the answer (for now) is “Wait”, we still have to go about our daily lives. This is hard and we will be tempted to rush a decision for the sake of closure. However, try to make decisions in the waiting time that don’t have long-lasting negative consequences for when you do get your answer. We have micro-decisions to make every single day while we wait. Many of them will yield short term consequences, but some could create ripple effects for years to come. Consider how to minimize your chance of regretting a decision you made while you were waiting for your answer.
Learning to be content with the idea that answers may not arise immediately is a faith-building and brain-building activity. Our faith is built as we wait and, many times, we eventually see what God was doing all along. Our brains grow in their capacity to tolerate uncertainty. Literally, our physical brains grow neural pathways that, instead of looping around in a circle of a fear that we won’t be okay without an answer, create a pathway that equates “not yet” with a sense of peace. Many times, individuals with chaotic home lives or trauma have a very hard time waiting when they don’t know what to do. If that’s the case, you may have equated answers and certainty with a sense of safety, because maybe that was the case for you. If we can’t trust our caregivers to be consistent, we learn that we need to get the answers for ourselves…and fast. But when we grow and come to a healthy, adult place, we begin to provide for ourselves the security we craved as children. We recognize that we are still safe and loved, even during times of uncertainty.