The contradiction between our need for certainty and living in an uncertain world lies at the heart of much of our anxiety and stress.

While our evolutionary heritage has ingrained in us a deep-seated desire for predictability and control, the reality of life is that it is inherently unpredictable.

Natural disasters, economic fluctuations, health issues, and personal relationships all contribute to an ever-present undercurrent of uncertainty.

This tension creates a constant struggle: on the one hand, our brains seek to create order and predict future events to feel secure; on the other, the world continually presents us with scenarios that defy our need for certainty.

Navigating this contradiction requires a balance between striving for control where possible and developing the resilience to accept and adapt to the unpredictability that is an unavoidable aspect of life.

This article explores the evolutionary background of our need for certainty and discusses strategies for overcoming our need for control and embracing change.

Click here to watch the extended version of this article, which includes greater detail regarding techniques for overcoming the need for control.

The Evolutionary Background

Humans have evolved over millions of years, and during this extensive period, the need for certainty and control has been crucial for survival.

In the harsh environments our ancestors faced, unpredictability often equated to danger. A clear understanding of surroundings, predictable patterns, and control over resources significantly increased the chances of survival.

1     Safety and Security

Early humans needed to know where their next meal was coming from, where predators lurked, and how to find shelter. Certainty and control meant safety and survival.

2     Social Structure

Human societies evolved complex social structures. Hierarchies and clear roles within a group provided stability and predictability, essential for cooperation and communal living.

3     Problem-Solving and Innovation

Our brains evolved to solve problems and predict outcomes. This ability to foresee and mitigate potential threats led to technological and societal advancements, further embedding the need for certainty and control in our psyches.

The Psychological Aspect

From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain is wired to seek patterns and predict outcomes. This inherent need manifests in various ways:

1     Anxiety and Fear

Uncertainty triggers anxiety, a survival mechanism designed to prepare the body to face potential threats using the flight, fight, freeze stress response. While beneficial in short bursts, chronic anxiety can be debilitating.

2     Control and Influence

Having control over one’s environment reduces anxiety and stress. It provides a sense of agency and power, essential for mental well-being.

3     Predictability

Humans derive comfort from predictability. Knowing what to expect allows for better preparation and reduces the mental load of constant vigilance.

The Modern Dilemma

In our contemporary world, the need for certainty and control can become maladaptive.

While our environments are relatively safer, and we are not constantly fending off predators or searching for food, the remnants of these evolutionary traits remain.

This can lead to:

1     Overwhelm and Stress

Modern life is filled with unpredictability—from job security to health concerns and personal relationships to global issues like climate change. The sheer volume of uncertainties can overwhelm us.

2     Micromanagement

The desire to control can lead to micromanaging, both oneself and others, which can be counterproductive and strain relationships.

3     Analysis Paralysis

An excessive need for certainty can result in overanalysing situations to the point of inaction, a condition known as analysis paralysis.

How To Stop Worrying About What You Can’t Control

Recognising the evolutionary roots of our need for certainty and control is the first step in managing the worry that stems from these desires. As I say frequently, we can’t change what we aren’t aware of.

Following are some practical strategies to help alleviate this type of stress:

1 Acceptance

Embrace the reality that uncertainty is an inherent part of life. Not everything can be controlled, and that’s okay. This acceptance is a form of mental flexibility, allowing you to adapt rather than resist.

2 Focus on What You CAN Control

Identify Controllable Factors: List aspects of your life you can control—your actions, responses, and decisions. Direct your energy towards these areas rather than futilely trying to manage the uncontrollable.

3 Develop Resilience

Use a journal to capture some of the problematic past situations you’ve navigated successfully. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. By doing this, you begin to re-wire your brain for success.

I’ve recently been reading Mind Magic by James R. Doty, M.D., one of the best books I’ve ever read on this topic. If you’re interested in neuroscience and rewiring your brain for positivity, it’s a must-read.

4 Limit Exposure to Stressors

Limit news and social media exposure, which often amplify uncertainties and fears. Choose reliable sources and designate specific times to check updates rather than constant monitoring.

Our brains can’t tell that the drama and chaos we are watching or reading aren’t happening directly to us, so our nervous system stays stuck on high alert, triggering our fight-flight-freeze stress response.

5 Cognitive Behavioural Techniques

You can use cognitive-behavioural techniques to challenge and reframe negative thoughts. For example, if you find yourself catastrophising, pause and evaluate the likelihood of the worst-case scenario actually happening.

I recommend using the following journal prompts:

  • What is the situation?

  • What are my thoughts about it?

  • Are my thoughts realistic or simply old programming (fear-based thoughts)?

  • What are more realistic thoughts?

  • What action can I take right now to help me move forward positively?

TAKING IMMEDIATE ACTION IS CRITICAL! It communicates to the subconscious mind that you are serious about making changes.

Doing this exercise helps bring the prefrontal cortex back online, taking you out of the programmed fight, flight, freeze stress response and helping you see things as they really are, not as you are in that period of negativity.

6 Professional Help

If worry and anxiety become overwhelming, consider seeking help from a therapist or coach like me who is proficient in modalities such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

I would recommend avoiding basic non-directive talking therapies in favour of someone who can give you tools that can help reduce your stress and anxiety not just talk about it (which can often make matters worse).

The Wrap-Up

Understanding the evolutionary basis for our need for certainty and control helps us appreciate why we might struggle with these issues in the modern world.

By applying strategies such as acceptance, mindfulness, focusing on controllable factors, limiting exposure to stressors, using cognitive behavioural techniques, and seeking professional help, we can better manage our worries and lead a more balanced, fulfilling life.

Remember, while we cannot eliminate uncertainty, we can change how we respond to it. By doing so, we not only reduce our anxiety but also open ourselves up to the myriad possibilities and opportunities that life has to offer.

What Next?

Click here to watch the extended version of this article, which includes greater detail regarding techniques for overcoming the need for control.

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